Owain Paciuszko 30/06/2008

Rating: 4/5

Loosely adapted from the graphic novel by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, this takes the simple premise of a secret order of assasins inviting an office-bound despondent young man with untapped potential into their fold. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov (helmer of the extraordinarilarly successful 'Day and Night Watch' (Nochnoy/Dnevnoy Dozor)) this is distinctly a post-Matrix action movie, but, rather fortunately, unlike most recent action cinema this has the good sense to not centre itself around effects that may pass a slight resemblence to 'bullet-time'. Instead it slips its little digital flourishes in to punctuate action scenes and often allows the sudden slo-mo diversions to come laden with a smart, comic twist.

James MacAvoy steps up to the challenge of shouldering a Hollywood blockbuster considerably, creating a journey for his character - Wesley Gibson - that manages to be both emotionally engaging and physically transformative. Comparing the meek, stressed out sap from the film's opening to the well-toned assassin of later scenes could provide spot-the-difference fans with many hours of happy circling. Beyond providing great turns in such fare as 'Bright Young Things' and 'Atonement', MacAvoy shows here he has the chops to hold his own against - and often tower above - the current crop of rather bland action stars. He also brings a level of enthusiasm to the character as he is thrust into this ludicrous blood-soaked world that - rather than alienate the audience with his proclamations of 'I am the man!' - lures them cunningly into the same giddy, silly mindset of the film.

Bekmambetov's real smart choice here is to not take this film too seriously, much like how the Watch films were enlivened by imaginative quirks like subtitles that interacted with the film, here the details and gags throughout are the kind of laugh-out-loud, popcorn-splutterers that Hollywood summer fare has sorely lacked since the heyday of big, brash Jerry Bruckheimer flicks ('The Rock' and 'Con Air' being notable choices) and, even moreso, the relentlessly lunatic blockbusters of the 1980s. It is also of some sick glee to point out that this film is quite unashamedly an 18 certificate, and that slaps a big happy smile onto the face of this reviewer; with - most recently - 'Die Hard 4.0' being a hideously toned down 12A it is a huge wave of relief to get an action movie that doesn't pull its punches, or its stabbings, shootings, kicks to the face, car crashes, explosions, swear-words, etc. In fact the film revels in, without glorifying, every perfectly placed bulletwound, not for the sake of showing off a nasty little computer image, but for the sake of making an action beat work. The real evolutionary leap here in Bekmambetov's direction is that his set-pieces step up and can stand proudly alongside the likes of a James ('The Terminator') Cameron or Steven Spielberg sequence in their sense of pacing and escalation. These are action sequences that last, they don't flit by in the blink of an eye, and the film builds to them with careful orchestration allowing the movie's stuntwork to roll like a snowball down a hillside, increasing in size, scope and invention at just the right speed so that the audience is willing to go along with whatever death-defying feat occurs.

This is exactly the kind of film that the summer has been begging out for, and will sit proudly alongside such funny, imaginative, lively and exciting fare as 'Crank' when the votes are counted and people reflect upon the great action cinema of the early 21st century. It is not perfect, but with most Hollywood product becoming increasingly squeamish, over-hyped and dissapointing this - like MacAvoy's Wesley Gibson - is the true underdog brimming with a humongous ammount of potential, and once it rips free of its shackles and gets going you can't help but be swept along by a really fun ride.