Saturday, May 9, 2009

There's a fun movie hiding inside X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but unfortunately no one manages to coax it out of its shell, not director Gavin Hood, not writers David Benioff and Skip Woods, not even star Hugh Jackman. If anybody comes closest, it's certainly Jackman, all admirable growls and likeable tough-guy sarcasm. The problem is that the movie is at once too much and too little; too much is going on to distract you from how little is really happening.

Let me explain. This is the first of a planned series of prequels to the three movies based on Marvel's Mighty Mutants and it delves deeper into the backstory of their most famous mutant: Wolverine (Jackman). The character wasn't always an amnesiac cigar-chomping badass with Adamantium claws. In fact, the movie's story hews closely to that of the comics, in which we learn that Wolverine starts out life as a timid kid in the 19th century named James Howlett. One night, his father is killed by a man who turns out to be his real dad, so Jimmy shows some early onset berserker rage by popping some bone claws out of his hands and killing the guy.

James and his brother Victor (played as a grown-up by the always worthwhile Liev Schreiber) run from home, and fight as soldiers in everything from the Civil War to

Vietnam. Eventually, when it's learned that the two have special powers -- Victor too is a mutant, leaping about with tiger-like ferocity -- Col. William Striker (Danny Huston) comes calling, offering them spots on a special ops mutant team. Attentive viewers will remember that Stryker was the villain in X2, and thus will not die or do anything we hadn't already sort of figured out in this prequel

Stryker's mutant team consists of super-strong Fred Dukes (Lost's villainous Kevin Durand); teleporter John Wraith (Will i Am); expert marksman Agent Zero (Daniel Henney); cocky swordsman Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds); and the machine-controlling Chris Bradley (Dominic Monaghan, another Lost veteran). One would assume that an entire movie could've been made out of this team's adventures, but instead we only get one ho-hum sequence before Wolverine disagrees with their ethics, leaves, experiences the tragic death of his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), and hooks back up with his buddies to help find her killer who is... wait for it... his brother! Cue the music.
The film throws all of these assorted good and bad guys at us with all the joy of a dead fish. When John teleports, we don't get the exhilaration of Nightcrawler's masterfully executed stunts in X2, and when Wade does some crazy shit with his swords we think of how much more fun it would be if we were playing him in a video game. Fans will know that Wade is Deadpool from the comics, one of the funniest and most entertaining anti-heroes in the Marvel Universe. Ryan Reynolds is the perfect casting decision, but unfortunately, the film wastes his presence. The same goes for Gambit (Taylor Kitsch). Hood, Benioff, Woods, and everyone else involved with the production know that the fans have been clamoring for Gambit's filmic appearance for so long that there's no way you could exclude him from the fourth entry in this franchise, but they put him in there with little to no excitement or fanfare. He's boring and unnecessary.
The movie is not all bad, though. For a while, it was so sloppy yet scrappy that I thought it might turn out all right, much in the same way that I liked X-Men: The Last Stand in spite of itself (or, for that matter -- *gasp* -- Spider-Man 3). Gavin Hood is a competent director, which helps. His Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Tsotsi was superb, and Rendition was an unfairly maligned political thriller. The action scenes here feel as robotic and uninspired as those in most big-budget franchise flicks, but the down-to-earth moments where Wolverine spends time in the Canadian Rockies and in love with Kayla show a real sense of feeling

And like I said, Hugh Jackman sells it. This may be his fourth time out as Wolvie, but he refuses to phone it in, delivering as tough and endearing a performance as ever. The guy is a born movie star. When he squares off with Liev Schreiber, the two actors ratchet the film to a level of intensity it otherwise wouldn't have achieved without them. But because the movie is so involved/distracted with its chronology and not-so-subtle allusions to the past X-Men films, I started thinking that if they're following the comics, Schreiber's character is supposed to be Sabretooth, who previously popped up in the first movie as played by Tyler Mane. That he's played by a different, and vastly superior, performer here doesn't bother me. What does bother me is that in the first film Sabretooth is a guttural, almost subhuman henchman of Magneto's who is in no way similar to the Sabretooth here. This franchise has become so convoluted that it's starting to have its own alternate realities, and when it gets that complicated in matters this frivolous, it's a lot less fun.
In that respect, at least, it's just like the comics.
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