It's perfectly acceptable practice to make an action movie without much of a story. "Avatar" doesn't have much of a story, but makes up the balance with so much energetic spectacle, you're entertained on a visceral level, even if you're not getting much out of it otherwise. But no matter how much eye candy is on the screen, if you don't get the solid basics of the plot and characters to hold it all together, the movie fails. In other words, you get a wreck like "Wanted."
First and foremost, the main character is absolutely worthless as a protagonist. His name is Wesley Gibson, a pasty, miserable cubicle worm who hates his job and his life. His girlfriend is sleeping with his best friend, he's perpetually harassed at work by a fat female supervisor, and he gets anxiety attacks so severe he needs medication to keep them under control. So far so good. But the kid is such a vulgar little jackass, who whines on and on about how much he hates everything, I could not work up an iota of sympathy for him. I did not care about what happened to Wesley, anything he did, or any of the revelations about him. And no matter what other shiny special effects or crazy action sequences were going on, the story always went back to this totally unlikable kid with no redeeming qualities. That pretty much killed the movie for me from the outset.
What really gets me is that Wesley is played by James McAvoy, who managed to make me forget his solid performances in "The Last King of Scotland" and "Atonement," and I don't mean that in a good way. This is a superb young actor who is completely wasted in a role that could have been played by a scowling cardboard cut-out. And it kills me that he's trying so hard for so, so little. Of the supporting cast, the only ones worth mentioning, because they're the only ones you'll remember five minutes after watching the movie, are Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie. They play Sloane and Fox, members of the Fraternity of Assassins that Wesley finds himself entangled with. Fox is the femme fatale Jolie always plays, the sexy badass seductress with an action fetish, and she's so good at it you really can't begrudge her the screen time even though she's an utterly empty character. It's the same with Morgan Freeman, as the leader of the Fraternity, who does more with his miserable dialogue than anyone else probably could have.
The film's premise isn't terrible. As it turns out, Wesley is the son of another assassin, recently murdered, and in danger of being killed himself. His anxiety attacks are the result of having inherited such keen senses from his father, he can access a supernatural level of perception that lets accomplish impossible feats of marksmanship, like making bullets arc in midair. The Fraternity gives him the opportunity to join their ranks, with Fox handling Wesley's physical training and Sloane providing all the necessary exposition to get us from one action sequence to the next. Sadly, none of this really leads anywhere. The rest of the plot isn't worth mentioning, save to note that the twists are idiotic and Wesley actually gets less likable as the movie goes on.
I will give some credit to Timur Bekmambetov, of the Russian "Night Watch" trilogy, who knows how to direct an action scene, and is very good about filling the screen with interesting visuals. Bullets and cars and human beings defy the laws of physics with balletic grace, and the amount of pure kinetic energy involved could power Las Vegas for New Years. But there's nothing to give these sequences any weight or resonance. There's no reason for all these gorgeous visuals to exist. Even James Cameron with all his souped-up motion capture razzle dazzle couldn't have saved this one.
Of course they're producing a sequel. No word on whether they'll even bother with a script this time.