James McAvoy, Common and Angelina Jolie in "Wanted." (Jay Maidment / Universal…)
Rodent lovers and rat rights activists, consider yourselves warned.
In the surrealistically violent action blockbuster "Wanted" -- which premieres at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Thursday and arrives in theaters June 27 -- several thousand rats are turned into four-legged weapons of mass destruction. Laden with explosives, they're let loose in a fortress-like textile mill with the intended purpose of maiming and killing as many people as possible in the bloody buildup to the film's climactic set-piece. Needless to say, the results aren't pretty.
Based on Mark Millar's graphic novel series of the same name, "Wanted" stars Scottish actor James McAvoy as a cubicle-bound, windbreaker-wearing accountant who discovers the blood of a killer runs through his veins. (Blame heredity: His father was the Michael Jordan of assassins.) Morgan Freeman appears as the head of a secret society of hit men called "the Fraternity," and Angelina Jolie plays a tough-as-Kevlar hit woman who schools McAvoy's character in the ways of the warrior (which in his case involve getting repeatedly sliced by butcher knives, punched with brass knuckles and learning to curve the trajectory of bullets so they swerve around stationary objects).
It's a film fixated with surfaces -- fiery sunsets, shattered glass, open wounds -- and packed with visceral images that fairly leap off the screen: arterial spray, spent shell casings and exploding rodents chief among them. But also in ways both profound and ridiculous, "Wanted" is the ideal film to open the LAFF (co-sponsored by The Times).
A determinedly populist "festival of discovery," the Westwood-based fest's tag line asserts: "The audience is king." It has long been dedicated to celebrating film in all its forms. But unlike other North American festivals, such as the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, New York's Tribeca Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival -- which still command greater name brand cachet with cineastes and acquisitions executives -- Los Angeles' cultural identity as home of the movie industry has been something of a historical liability for the LAFF.
In a town where movies premiere almost every night of the week, the local economy rises and falls on film production schedules, and the array of independent and international movies in theaters in a given week is nearly unrivaled, the paradox is this: How do you get locals excited about their hometown film fest?
However, thanks to the flashy counterprogramming step of including popcorn movies and big-budget studio fare like the closing-night selection "Hellboy II: The Golden Army" (a comic book adaptation from Oscar-nominated writer-director Guillermo del Toro) and "Wanted," the 10-day festival's stature has grown in recent years. And so has attendance, which is up almost threefold, from around 30,000 in 2005 to 83,000 last year, with expected gate totals in excess of 100,000 in 2008, organizers said.
"We are a film festival, but don't think of us like other film festivals," LAFF director Richard Raddon said. "We've never been opposed to screening big studio movies as long as we had the right context for them. We're open to thinking outside the box."
Added fest director of programming Rachel Rosen: "The festival has to be right for the city it's in. We're a film fest in L.A. in the summer. To pretend that we're not seems ridiculous."
With that in mind, consider the pedigree of "Wanted" director Timur Bekmambetov. His Russian-made fantasy-action hit "Nochnoi Dozor" (Night Watch) screened as part of the LAFF in 2005. And that same year, the Kazakh-born TV and music video auteur was cherry-picked by Universal to direct "Wanted," his first Hollywood blockbuster.
"I have a very specific relationship with film festivals: They don't like me," Bekmambetov said. "In general, my films aren't in competition. I feel very proud to be part of this."
The director also admitted some shock that Universal gave him enough free reign to make what's essentially an art-house action movie on steroids -- a darker, quirkier, more violent and more ironic film than any summer tentpole in recent memory. "I don't understand and can't explain why the studio supported our creative ambitions," Bekmambetov said. "It was very surprising that I had the chance to do whatever I wanted. I think we witchcrafted them."
Which, when considered a certain way, is a microcosm of what's on offer at the LAFF: a synergistic mash-up of art for art's sake, bottom line-boosting commercial product and the kind of indie movie alchemy that could come out of only one dream factory -- Hollywood.