MOVIE REVIEW - 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' a Good Start

[This review contains SPOILERS]

“I’m the best there is at what I do. And what I do isn’t very nice.”

As titles go, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is about as unremarkable a title as you could come up with for the first solo screen adventure of Marvel’s most popular mutant.

It should have been called “Wolverine: Back to Basics.” Because that’s what this big, loud, barroom brawl of a movie is. It steers clear of the original X-trilogy’s weightier aspirations and with a fully committed Hugh Jackman at the helm, returns everyone’s favorite Bub back to his ‘one man against the world’ roots.

That may come as a surprise to fans who know Logan as the guy who holds membership in practically every Marvel Comics super-team, or as the cigar-chomping, pep-talk giving mentor he turns into in X-Men: The Last Stand. but before he became the face of Mutant Marvel, Wolverine was the ultimate anti-hero, the four-color Man-with-No-Last-Name.

The film begins in 1845 with the family tragedy that triggers a deep rage inside a young, frail boy named James Howlett. He also discovers his sharp, bone claws that pop from his hand. Along with his older brother Victor, he takes off on a tragic, violent journey.

Director Gavin Hood [Rendition] then rips a page from the Zack Snyder filmmaking playbook and cleverly uses the opening credits to establish the timeline of the film. Thanks to their mutant healing factor, the seemingly ageless duo are ideal soldiers, fighting in every war from the Civil War to the storming of the Normandy beaches in WWII, to Vietnam.

[It's not hard to envision similar opening credit montages for Green Lantern, Captain America and just about every other planned big-budget comic book movie.]

Soon they’re recruited by Army Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston) for his off-the-books black Ops team of super-powered soldiers known as Team X: Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), a sharpshooting tracker; the super-strong Fred J. Dukes (Kevin Durand), John Wraith (Black Eyed Peas singer Will I.Am.), Bradley (Dominic Monaghan) and Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds).

Victor, slowly giving in to his savage nature, feels right at home as Sabretooth, doing Stryker’s dirty work. Logan (he no longer goes by James) however, wants to suppress the berserker rage he carries inside.

During a mission in Africa to find the source of a mysterious meteorite with special metallic properties (more on that later), Logan finally quits the group. In Victor’s eyes, his brother’s abandoned and betrayed him. That sparks the sibling rivalry that drives much of the film.

Schreiber is a perfect foil for Jackman onscreen. He’s ferocious and when he snarls, you jump in your seat. The two men, both tall and physically imposing, match up well too, during their many fight scenes. The filmmakers wisely listened to Schreiber’s pleas early on to let him bulk up for the role and not use a fat suit.

Six years later after quitting Team X, Logan is a quiet, John Rambo-like existence in the Canadian Rockies. He’s in love with a teacher named Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), who’s with him despite the inherent risks.

[Some guys hog the covers when they sleep. Logan pops his claws.]

But loving Logan has always been a health hazard.

After Sabretooth enacts his revenge for his brother’s betrayal on Kayla, a grief-stricken Logan agrees to take part in Stryker’s risky Weapon X experiment at Alkali Lake. In one of the highlights of the film, we see Logan undergo a torturous process in which his body is infused with the adamantium (remember the meteorite in Africa?) that will make him nearly indestructible.

After discovering that Stryker planned to double-cross him, Logan snaps and his berserker rage appears for only the second time in the character’s cinematic history (X2 being the other, of course). Jackman has said repeatedly during advance publicity that seeing Wolverine truly cut loose was one of the reasons he wanted to make this picture. This is that payoff scene.

The director Hood makes allusions to other popular figures in popular culture, especially Frankenstein. Wolverine has always shared much in common with that tragic figure, a mutated man who has been grotesquely transformed by warped science.

There are numerous times during Wolverine where you will be reminded of other movies and characters, including Rambo, of all people.

Logan brings down Agent Zero’s chopper, he grabs the mic and threatens Stryker in a scene that is a direct swipe from the moment in First Blood Part II where Stallone grabs the mic and warns Charles Napier, “I’m coming to get you!”

After the Weapon X experiment, Logan discovers Stryker’s true end game: To rid the world of mutants.

His former partners in Team X had been dispatched to round up mutants from across the globe and bring them to a secret island. That’s where Stryker was harvesting their abilities to create the ultimate fighting machine – Weapon XI.

Aside from the homages/swipes/cribs from various corners of the pop culture-verse, David Benioff and Skip Woods’ fanboy-friendly screenplay combines elements from two defining Wolverine comic book stories: Barry Windsor-Smith’s early 90's ‘Weapon X’ serial from Marvel Comics Presents and the early 2000's Paul Jenkins/Andy Kubert limited series Origin.

But after the initial set up, the film takes a wise detour from the typical origin story and becomes a compelling, if straightforward, revenge movie. Along the way, plot inconsistencies and questions develop that are never clearly resolved.

Why was Sabretooth hunting down the other members of Team X and not just capturing them for testing?

Why are Logan’s tracking abilities clearly present in one scene, yet don’t allow him to spot an obvious setup literally right under his nose?

The writers also seemed to have panicked to make sure the events in Wolverine were properly retconned to fit what’s to come in the X-movies. How else do you explain the preposterous plot device used at the end to cost Logan lose his memory? It’s a ridiculous cop-out lifted straight from General Hospital.

By the way, there is no Stan Lee cameo here, but there are a few well-known mutants who make appearances.

Speaking of familiar faces…

The most anticipated mutant debut is Remy LeBeau, a.k.a. Gambit, and he doesn’t disappoint. Taylor Kitsch from TV’s Friday Night Lights is well-cast as the Cajun card shark with explosive powers that could be the key to stopping Stryker. The obligatory fight scene between him and Logan should be a satisfying payoff for Gambit fans (I was just glad he didn’t mimic the voice of Gambit from the old X-Men cartoon).

The film also doesn’t disappoint in terms of action. Besides about a half-dozen fights, there’s a helicopter/motorcycle chase through the woods that’s particularly thrilling. The movie’s climactic battle is also a jaw-dropper. There were widely circulated reports that Richard Donner was brought in to ‘assist’ Hood with the complex set pieces. If that’s the case, it was money well spent. The action scenes here trump most anything in the first three X-flicks.

The CGI work in this $150 million production, however, was stunningly subpar. Every single time one of the characters stepped off the ground, the computer animation was painfully clear. Sabretooth’s run-and-jump technique on all fours looked bad. Really bad. Same thing for Agent Zero’s leap into a helicopter.

Considering the amount of online bandwidth used the past few years discussing the theatrical debut of characters such as Deadpool, the very brief screen time Team X gets in Wolverine is bound to disappoint hardcore fans.

Reynolds, Monaghan, and Will I.Am. make the most of their scenes, and the sequence where we learn how Fred J. Dukes becomes the Blob gives this very serious movie some much-needed levity. Still, it’s hard not to feel that several great characters were wasted here.

Huston is typically slimy and duplicitous as Stryker. Sabretooth may go mano-y-mano with Logan, but it’s Stryker who is the puppet master, the true villain of the story.

Ultimately though, Wolverine is all on Jackman’s insanely muscular shoulders. And he is completely invested in the character. You can see it in every frame of film, hear it in every line of dialogue. Because he takes it seriously, we take it seriously. And that’s why the movie works.

Jackman has a lot riding on this personally. This could be his last chance to show he can headline a summer blockbuster on his own. We’ll know in a few days whether he’s proved he can. But if it turns out he can’t, it’s not for lack of effort on his part.

One tantalizing aspect of the film is that it obviously leaves the sequel door open, but in which direction? Obviously, the point is moot if this movie doesn’t meet expectations. But if it does, the next chapter in Logan’s onscreen story has some fascinating options.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Let’s see how X-Men Origins: Wolverine plays out first.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens nationwide Friday, May 1st.

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