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Now and Then: Wanted and The Matrix

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Now: Wanted (2008)
Then: The Matrix (1999)
Bullet-bending super-angsty killer in training.
 Bullet-dodging superhuman savior in waiting.

In Wanted, which just made a healthy $51 million its first weekend in theaters, a cube-dwelling nobody is suddenly plucked from humdrum world by a super-hot lady and plunged into danger as a wanted fugitive. Our hero is then brought before an older man with a resonant speaking voice who explains how the world really works, unveiling the secrets and lies behind the world our hero thought he knew.

At this point, any action fan should be thinking, “I remember how this one goes.” It’s no secret to reveal that Wanted resembles The Matrix — you could argue that any action film released in the past nine years owes a tip of the hat to Larry and Andy Wachowski’s 1999 scifi action brain-bender. What’s even more interesting is to what end director Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted uses his rip offs of everything from The Matrix plot arcs to wardrobe touches.

Breaking the Laws (of Motion)
I can’t help but think this says more about how boundary-breaking and insanely cool The Matrix was when it came out than it does about Wanted. One of the things The Matrix captured brilliantly — and Wanted
also does, to a lesser extent — was the Wachowski’s inspired decision
to have the majority of its action sequences take place in a virtual
world where the laws of physics are a bit more bendable than usual.
When Keanu Reeves’ Neo unleashes his newfound skills on various
villainous agents, we don’t balk at the crazier blows and blocks
because we unconsciously accept that, hey, this isn’t the real world,
so we can have unreal action. The same kind of sleight-of-hand helps us
swallow Wanted’s death-defying leaps and direction-bending bullets.

But The Matrix also deftly managed a piece of moral mechanics that Wanted tries, and fails, to pull off. In Wanted,
it’s explained that the victims of the secret society of assassins have
it coming; James McAvoy’s Wesley isn’t a murderer but an agent of the
greater good. In The Matrix, whenever Neo takes out an Agent in
the film’s electronic world, we know he’s not killing a person but
crashing a program — and if that were a crime, every Windows user
would be doing 20-to-life. Yes, Neo induces some collateral damage
against fellow humans trapped in the Matrix; that’s nothing compared to
what Wesley does to an entire train full of innocent bystanders in Wanted.

Desk Drone to Death-Dealer
Wanted‘s casting of McAvoy similarly echoes The Matrix‘s choice of hero. McAvoy’s best known for highbrow dramas like Atonement , The Last King of Scotland and Becoming Jane ;
he’s an unlikely action hero. Just as the film asks us to follow along
as wimpy, worried Wesley becomes a bold, brutal killer, it also asks us
to watch McAvoy transform from period-piece actor to action film movie
star. And while Keanu Reeves had done his share of action films before The Matrix Point Break , Speed and others — he certainly hadn’t done anything as physical as The Matrix‘s
high-octane kung fu fighting. Reeves went from movie star to martial
artist with complete conviction, which may be the more startling and
effective transformation; anyone can pick up a gun, but Reeves trained
hard for his stunt work, and it shows.

Innovator Versus Imitator
I know that the underwhelming sequels — The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003) — have taken some of the luster off The Matrix, but at the same time, The Matrix
remains eminently watchable and amazingly satisfactory. The
“bullet-time” effect may have been mirrored and mocked in dozens of
films since then, but it’s still an eye-popper; Wanted‘s bullet’s-eye-view flythroughs are just a more skillful reiteration of the time-twisting magic of The Matrix‘s sequences.

Ultimately, you can’t get mad at Wanted for ripping off The Matrix
— because the Wachowskis also shamelessly and superbly stole from
action movies that had gone before. Their movie is a celebration of
Asian action cinema from Bruce Lee to John Woo; the terrifying glimpses
of the world outside the Matrix and the unstoppable Agents owe a huge
debt to the colossal constructions of James Cameron’s Aliens and killer robots of the Terminator
films. There are even moments lifted from ’70s Blacksploitation cinema
and the New Testament. (Really, isn’t Lawrence Fishburne’s Morpheus the
logically illogical hybrid of John Shaft and John the Baptist?)

Both movies copy liberally from what came before them. But Wanted ends up a glossy, glib diversion of an action movie, while The Matrix ends up a big, bold re-definition of the action movie. Go back to the The Matrix and you’ll see a film that changed its genre — something we won’t ever say about Wanted.

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