May 7, 2009

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine (PG-13)
Hugh Jackman shows us how a Canadian boy with a hyper-developed sense of smell and retractable bone-claw-thingies turned into the adamantium-skeletoned wisecracker we all know and love in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

In the mid 19th century somewhere in the Northwest Territories of Canada, a sickly young boy named James discovers all on one night that: his father is dead, his father isn’t his real father, his real father is some angry backwoodsman who reveals his parentage just as James kills him, the angry looking slightly older boy, Victor, who had been hanging out with James is in fact his brother and, finally, James learns that when he gets angry sharp bone-claws shoot out of his hand and provide him with handy deadly weapons. James and Victor decide to high-tail it, post-patricide, and eventually find themselves as fierce grown fighters in the war. Which war? All of them — we see James (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) fight in the American Civil War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam, with Victor becoming more blood-thirsty each time. This is all more or less over the credit sequence, so by the time the movie really gets going, we’ve learned that James and Victor don’t only have some problems with violence but they also seem to be relatively unkillable.

It is, in fact, after a firing squad fails to kill them that they get recruited to be part of a special force, led by William Stryker (Danny Huston). This unit of mutants has, essentially, license to kill — or do whatever — and that starts to gnaw at James. Though his brother Victor is intoxicated by this unfettered power, James decides it is not for him and walks away.

We next see James back in Canada, working as a lumberjack and living with his girlfriend Kayla (Lynn Collins). Now calling himself Logan, our angry little soldier tries to keep his temper in check and his bad dreams at bay. But all his rage comes flooding when Victor and Stryker come back and put that peace at peril.

Here’s what’s cool about this Wolverine solo project: he out-maneuvers a helicopter with a motorcycle, we find out how he got the sexy cool leather jacket and we get to watch Wolverine quip and beat people up. In the previous three X-Men movies, Wolverine might not have been the guy to move ahead the plot (Magneto, Prof. X, Jean Grey and the cerebral types seem to do most of the heavy lifting in that area) but he was by far the most fun to watch during a fight. He was the guy who kicked butt, who shut up the talky adversary (as he does here) by knocking him out, who deflated superhero egos. Watching him was the X-Men equivalent of comic relief — and also the chance to inject a little sexy swagger into the geeky world of thinkers and costumes. And he does all of that here and it works just fine. Wolverine and Jackman are a great fit — it’s his most macho, physically impressive role and he gives the character a winning sparkle. Jackman really does give this moment in the spotlight his all.

And that’s about it.

Wolverine’s backstory could have been handled with a few lines of exposition and been just as fulfilling. Don’t get me wrong — the explosions are great, the fight scenes are fun, the special effects are occasionally quite bad but most of that badness is forgivable and doesn’t completely take you out of the action. But the movie feels, mostly, unnecessary. This is one of the few times when just telling me “Wolverine was an unkillable soldier who let the government experiment on him because of a girl” would have sufficed. (And before you complain about spoilers, that’s the gist of the information you get in the trailer.) Wolverine and his story don’t have enough substance to support a movie without the other X-Men (or without most of the other X-Men — the movie gives us a bit of Scott Summers/Cyclops and his origin story as well). I like Wolverine but I don’t know that I care enough about him as a solitary character — as opposed to him and his place in the X-Men — to be this curious about his background. And this movie doesn’t give me anything new and exciting to make me want delve deeper into the character. Ryan Reynolds, will.i.am and Taylor Kitsch show up and play mutants who (at least in the case of Reynolds and Kitsch) have backstories and little character arcs, but the movie doesn’t particularly make you interested in them as personalities either. It’s like you’re watching a line-up of action figures and learning about their battery-powered laser gun or their kung-fu gripping action. Neat toys, sure, but you aren’t really going to be asking yourself what their inner motivation is.

Wolverine is a serviceable superhero movie that does genuinely offer moments of fun. They just aren’t fun enough. C+

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, and some partial nudity. Directed by Gavin Hood and written by David Benioff and Skip Woods, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is an hour and 47 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by 20th Century Fox Distribution.