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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

DIRECTOR: Gavin Hood

CAST:

Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Lynn Collins, Ryan Reynolds, Taylor Kitsch, Will.i.Am, Daniel Henney, Dominic Monaghan, Kevin Durand

REVIEW:

Prequels rarely avoid feeling unnecessary, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine isn’t an exception. The spin-off for the character embodied onscreen in three X-Men films by Hugh Jackman (who produced here) is not exactly a train wreck, but it’s a bit of a disorganized mess that doesn’t escape a feeling of generic, uninspired redundancy. There’s also the sense that perhaps the very character of Wolverine, who many X-Men fans were already complaining was allowed to overshadow everyone else in the ostensibly ensemble trilogy, is suffering from overexposure. Wolverine the movie character is becoming less interesting than Wolverine the comics character with each progressive cinematic outing.

We start with a somewhat confusing (at least for non-fans of the comics) prologue in 1840 Canada (actually Canada was not formed as a nation for a couple more decades, but never mind), where young Jimmy Howlett (sounds less intimidating than either Logan or Wolverine, doesn’t it?) and his somewhat sinister older brother Victor Creed go on the run after Jimmy sprouts bone claws and unknowingly kills his own biological father. The opening credits montage gives us glimpses of the two (now played as adults by Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber) serving in the American Civil War, WWI, WWII, and finally Vietnam (they stayed home for Korea, apparently). It’s in ‘Nam where the two are approached by Colonel William Stryker (Danny Huston, playing Brian Cox’s role from X2: X-Men United), who is putting together a special team of mercenaries made up completely of mutants, including wisecracking, sword-wielding Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), lightning-fast Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), teleporting John Wraith (Will.i.Am.), indestructible Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand), better-known to comic fans as The Blob, and electricity-manipulating Bradley/Bolt (Dominic Monaghan). Jimmy leaves the team when he realizes the brutal lengths Stryker expects them to go to (the bloodthirsty Victor has no such compunction) and spends the next six years living quietly as a logger with his love Kayla (Lynn Collins). But the past won’t leave him be, and soon he gets sucked into revenge, betrayal, helicopter chases, and adamantium experiments.

The biggest problem with Wolverine is that everything is too rushed and watered-down. The prologue leaves all kinds of things unclear: who was the man Jimmy believed was his father? Is Victor his brother or half-brother or what? Where do they go? Why do they fight in all those wars? What do they do in the meantime? Why do they stop aging once they reach adulthood and then look exactly the same for hundreds of years? For that matter, why does Jimmy suddenly start to be called Logan? As fans of the comics can tell you, Victor Creed is (or will be) Sabertooth, but he’s never once referred to by his alias here. Jimmy/Logan’s time on the team is given practically as short shrift as his war experiences, showing us one mission during which he does the least of anyone on the team (not giving us much to back it up when he explains ‘I’m the best at what I do, and what I do isn’t very nice’, except, of course, the X-Men movies), before he gets righteously offended by Stryker’s ruthlessness and throws in the towel (it apparently took him a couple hundred years to realize his brother is a vicious thug).  Most disappointing of all is the perfunctory treatment given to what should be the central event of the movie: Logan’s transformation into Wolverine as we know him, which is given almost no lead-in or build-up and seems ten times as flat and unimpressive as the flashbacks through the first and second X-Men films, which were darker than anything we get here. Sometimes taking us back and showing us everything actually illuminates the shadows too much and robs it of its mystique.

Having played Wolverine three times previously, Hugh Jackman is expectedly comfortable in the part, although Wolverine has been softened from his comic book edginess, and the gap grows with each onscreen outing. The Wolverine we were introduced to in the bar at the beginning of X-Men and the one who defended the mansion against Stryker’s SWAT team in X2 was more feral and ferocious than he ever is here. Perhaps Fox studio, in their infinite wisdom, decided Wolverine needed to be more “likable” as his onscreen popularity grew, so here, even in his origin, when he should be at his darkest and least human, he’s a big softie do-gooder. That’s Cyclops, not Wolverine. Liev Schreiber is suitably menacing, and seems to be enjoying himself as he snarls and growls his way through the movie, although being surrounded by tall people (Hugh Jackman, who is much taller than the comic Wolverine, and Danny Huston are both 6’2″) makes the 6’3″ Schreiber look less imposing than he might otherwise have (the only time he really gets to tower is opposite the 5’7″ Dominic Monaghan). The lion’s share of the fairly slim legitimate pleasures of Wolverine involve Schreiber, who makes Victor into an equal adversary for Wolverine who despite his brutality and disregard for life, doesn’t quite come across as a one-dimensional villain. It’s not any kind of great performance, but given the material he had to work with (some extremely dopey one-liners and a corny 11th hour brotherly team-up), Schreiber probably does as good of a job as can be expected. Danny Huston, who is getting to be almost as familiar as Brian Cox in the role of ‘shifty government man’, is fine but unexciting as Stryker. Schreiber understands the balance between being too restrained and chomping on the scenery. Huston’s underplaying leaves his Stryker a little dull and not nearly as imposing as Schreiber’s Creed.

Another significant issue with Wolverine is the influx of superfluous cameos (something that started to rear its head in X-Men 3). Apart from Wolverine, Creed, and Stryker, none of the team members get much more than walk-on roles, with the movie making the casting coup of Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, a fan favorite who has lobbied for the part for years, and then giving him about five minutes of screentime (during which he proves he probably could have pulled it off). Dominic Monaghan’s bit part is even more thankless, giving him lines he could probably count on one hand and then killing him off (killed off of Lost just when he was receiving positive reviews, and then great snarky fun on the short-lived sci-fi series Flashforward, Monaghan seems doomed to be eternally under-appreciated). Then there are more characters randomly thrown in to provide tie-ins with the X-Men films, like a teenage Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tim Pocock), and even a surprise guest drop-in by Patrick Stewart’s Xavier (whose digital deaging effects look a little weird), or as nods to fans, with people like Emma Frost (Tahnya Tozzi). The most prominent of the latter is Gambit (Taylor Kitsch of TV series Friday Night Lights), who drops in around halfway through and more or less serves briefly as Wolverine’s sidekick. Kitsch shows a hint of charisma, and Gambit gets a fight scene that should please his fans. Unfortunately, while Gambit’s portrayal is adequate, most of the other characters beyond Wolverine, Creed, and Stryker are given very short shrift, none worse than the hatchet job done on Wade Wilson/Deadpool, who is given a few minutes early on and then disappears until the end, when he emerges as Weapon X, an amalgamation of all the mutants’ powers, for the climactic fight, like the boss in a video game you have to defeat to get to the next level. Not only does this thing bear no resemblance to the Deadpool of the comics, but the notoriously wisecracking Wade’s mouth has even been sewn shut, making me half-wonder if Fox went out of its way to butcher the character as much as possible. Fans of Deadpool are likely to find this ‘portrayal’ unsatisfying to say the least.

Lest my review sound overwhelmingly negative, Wolverine is not at all unwatchable, merely frustratingly mediocre and by-the-numbers. Gavin Hood handles the action scenes serviceably, even if there’s no real standout action sequence. The regular fights between Wolverine and Creed, while enthusiastically-performed by Jackman and Schreiber, seem a little tedious.  When both combatants have superhuman healing powers and are virtually indestructible, it begs the question, ‘what’s the point‘?. More entertaining is the boxing match between Wolverine and Fred Dukes/Blob, although it basically turns Blob into an extended fat joke. There are a few surefire crowd-pleasing moments, including a car chase that ends with Wolverine jumping onto a flying helicopter. In fact, the movie might work better viewed as a standalone instead of tied in with the X-Men trilogy, despite the increasingly contrived lengths the filmmakers go to toward the end, bending over backwards to make things happen that are necessary for where Wolverine starts in X-Men. For example, not only is there no resemblance between Danny Huston and Brian Cox (Cox also spoke with a Southern accent as Stryker, which Huston avoids), Liev Schreiber’s Victor Creed and Tyler Mane’s Sabertooth look nothing alike and are basically unrecognizable as the same character (Mane looks the part more than Schreiber, but Schreiber’s portrayal is more faithful, character-wise, than the one-dimensional monosyllabic hired muscle Sabertooth was in X-Men). The special effects are also shoddier, and seem to have been made on the cheap: too often when Wolverine sprouts his adamantium blades, they look like inserted animated images, and his figure is clearly animated in a brief shot of him leaping over a waterfall. Little glitches like these give the impression the movie was made on the cheap, slapped together lazily, and the rushed-through feel of pivotal events backs this up.

Devout fans of the X-Men comics will be more aware of and care more about many of the movie’s flaws, the bastardization of Deadpool and the very short shrift given other characters, than the average moviegoer, and Wolverine can be moderately entertaining as long as you don’t do much thinking on the way. It’s just disappointing and a little frustrating to see a showcase for such a potentially edgy anti-hero as Wolverine that doesn’t come close to fulfilling its potential, and doesn’t even equal the first and second X-Men installments, let alone the epic heights of Batman Begins (an origin movie that works) or The Dark Knight.

**1/2

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