01 May 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, William J. Adams, Lynn Collins, Ryan Reynolds.

Fox attempts to continue the “X-Men” film franchise past the obvious terminal point of 2005’s X-Men: The Last Stand with a set of “biopic prequels.” This first X-Men Origins film, tackling the most famous of Marvel Comics’ mutants—in fact, their most popular character after a certain web-slinger—has already received a large number of negative reviews, but I’ll admit that I enjoyed it on a standard “Welcome to the Summer Movie Season” level. It’s far superior to the empty X-Men: The Last Stand, and since it only has to worry about one main character, it can get the focus that the desperately rushed and overstuffed previous film lacked.

But Wolverine has added it’s own pack of secondary mutants into its main character’s origin, and not all of them belong there or make much sense. That’s one of my main complaints with the movie overall. For example, shoehorning Cyclops into all this simply doesn’t work.

Another problem with the film is that the basic premise means Wolverine gets a full history… and like the Joker in DC Comics, Wolverine benefits more from a mysterious background than a fully exposed one. So much of creating a story for him involves backtracking from the comics and specifically events in X2, the second and best of the X-Men films, that some parts don’t fit together, requiring the script sometimes do hand-waving distractions รก la George Lucas.

People unfamiliar with the previous X-Men movies or the comics may find the story a bit confounding in places. The plot has Col. William Stryker from X2 (played there by Brian Cox, here by Danny Huston) as the main villain. Stryker sets up his “mutant project” that will lead to the creation of the hero Wolverine as we know him, and also establish the U.S. government’s future confrontation with “the mutant problem.”

But first… a prologue shows the youthful Wolverine, Jimmy Howlett (the movie sort of skips over how he picks up the name Logan—at least I didn’t catch it), and his half-brother Victor Creed discovering their mutant powers and running into the 1845 Canadian wilderness. It’s a clumsily acted and shot opening that doesn’t promise well for the rest of the movie, but the excellent credit sequence showing Logan (Hugh Jackman in his fourth appearance as the character) and Creed (a.k.a. Sabertooth, now played by Liev Schreiber) fighting in all the major U.S. wars that follow restores some hope. Both Schreiber and Jackman plunge into the roles with an energy that overcomes the staid dialogue. During Vietnam, Stryker approaches both men to ask them to form part of special force of other mutants, but Logan leaves when Creed’s sadism—and that of the team’s goals in general—gets too strong.

The events that follow show Stryker gaming Logan as part of his overall plot, one that eventually requires Huston to spout a bit too much exposition. However, Huston is one of Hollywood’s best villain actors right now, a man who oozes authority and slime at the same time, so even if his scheming gets a bit convoluted at times, it’s fun watching him go at it. I can’t tell who I like better in the role, Huston or Cox; I’ll have to re-watch X2 before I can make a decision on that.

A pack of bonus mutants pile-on via Stryker’s program. Ryan Reynolds appears early on during the strike force days, then vanishes until his reappearance as Deadpool (drastically different from the comic book character). William J. Adams, using his silly rapper name of will.i.am, plays a forgettable teleporter character who could have teleported right out of the film and changed nothing. One of my favorite mutant villains, the Blob, finally shows up in an X-Men film, played Kevin Durand, and he’s one of the film’s highlights; I wish we got to see more of him. Kinetic mutant Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) shows up as a plot device/afterthought, but he adds energy at a point when the film needs it.

The action in the film generally clicks, especially Wolverine’s confrontation with a helicopter and jeep attack in the Canadian wilderness. The attempts at comedy and tenderness, however, fall flat, such as the silly sequence that comes right before the helicopter battle, when Wolverine hides out with the most trusting pair of ol’ folks you’ve ever seen. Logan’s romance with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) also feels like dead-weight.

Based on historical references, the majority of the movie occurs in the 1970s. The climax, for example, most definitely occurs on 28 March 1979. (Click on the date if you want a mild spoiler.) However, nobody seems to have informed the production or costume design teams about the setting, since everything looks perfectly 2009. It isn’t even late-1990s, which would put it before X-Men. I can’t tell if this is laziness on the filmmakers’ part, or if they liked the idea of the “shifting timeline” in Marvel and DC Comics that makes everything that happens in the past rougly analogous with the present. Wait, I can tell. Laziness.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine won’t pose any threat to Iron Man as far as Marvel superhero movies go, but it isn’t the worst way to start the summer.

Best exchange:
“Your country needs you.”
“I’m Canadian.”
That’s probably the sharpest claw-swipe Jackman makes in the movie.