Based on comics by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, Night Watch and Day Watch director Timur Bekmambetov’s American debut initially promises to challenge the heroism of blindly following your destiny, yet instead descends into an unsatisfactory blur of curving bullets and splattered blood and guts.
Impressively, the film opens with the fearsome-looking Mr. X ( David Patrick O’Hara) escaping assassination in a Chicago skyscraper, before leaping through the glass and across the void to the roof of the building opposite, only to eventually lose a gun battle with a bullet through the head.
The next day, nervy account manager Wesley Gibson ( James McAvoy), frightened by his boss and cuckolded by his best friend, is standing in the supermarket when a mysterious woman ( Angelina Jolie) informs him that his unknown father died yesterday as one of the world’s greatest assassins.
The rightfully named Fox then drags him to the floor as a firefight ensues with Cross ( Thomas Kretschmann), the man who killed him. Their battle continues onto the streets outside, Fox sprawled on the bonnet of her car, driving with her legs through the smashed windshield while continuing to fire, Wesley screaming for deliverance throughout.
After they escape, she takes him to the fortress headquarters of The Fraternity, where Sloan ( Morgan Freeman) relates how the 1000-year-old organisation.
This chiefly involves The Repairman ( Marc Warren) beating the crap out of him, The Butcher ( Dato Bakhtadze) doing the same with knives, The Exterminator ( Konstantin Khabensky) helping him recuperate and showing how to use rats as mobile bombs, Gunsmith ( Common) trying to teach him how to curve bullets around obstacles and Fox revealing how to ride atop a speeding train.
Desperate to avenge his father, the impatient Wesley heads to Europe and The Fraternity’s birthplace, where the monkish Pekwarsky ( Terence Stamp) arranges a meeting with Cross, culminating in an outlandish battle on a train as it careers off a bridge.
Despite his occasionally wayward US accent, McAvoy confirms his impressive range as an actor, both as the downtrodden Wesley and the stoic killer he becomes, handling the action sequences capably.
Jolie is perfectly cast, looking sardonically amused as the gun-toting fantasy figure, as is Morgan Freeman as the organisation’s venerable voice of authority. Yet you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve seen them in these parts before, which may, or may not lead you to predict the film’s various twists before they occur.
From the moment Wesley enters The Fraternity, the script betrays its comic book origins. The central premise, of ancient weavers setting themselves up as assassins of fate is construed laughably by ridiculously fleeting exposition, while the key problem raises, of blind faith and solidarity versus an individual moral compass, are quickly lost in all the excitement of gunfire.
Still, Bekmambetov really knows how to shoot action, exploiting Wesley’s accelerated metabolism to create a crazy visual effects to the film’s heart-pumping rhythms, using bullet-time technology for some imaginative set pieces and other pretty original moments, with Wesley charging through a factory, bodies flailing left and right, maintaining fire even as his gun is lodged in the back of another man’s skull.