X-Men Origins: Wolverine
- Directed by Gavin Hood
- Written by David Benioff and Skip Woods
- Starring Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber
- Classification: PG
Summer is about abundance, and summer movies are characteristically overstuffed with coils of plot, heaps of action and megawatts of special effects. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first of this year's summer movies (it opens at midnight tonight in some theatres) is suitably filling, if not always nutritious.
A physical howl-and-growl alternative to Bryan Singer's first two X-Men movies, Wolverine's best contribution may be the appeal of nature, especially for fans who enjoy ogling star Hugh Jackman. The pay-off shot comes about a half-hour into the labyrinthine story when the star stands shirtless outside his log cabin in a mountainous idyll identified onscreen as "the Canadian Rockies" (though credits indicate it might be New Zealand). The vision is spectacular: The towering peaks, sun-bronzed ridges and towering promontories stretching to a patch of old growth mutton-chop running up Jackman's cheek. The mountains and trees look good too.
As the movie progresses, there are moments when you wish screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods had spent as many hours buffing the sometimes flabby script as Jackman has obviously spent in the gym. In the long introduction, Wolverine actually out-does Watchmen in its prohibitively expensive historical montage. The opening scene establishes the setting and time as 1845 Northwest Territories (a historical impossibility) when a boy, Jimmy Logan, and his best friend, Victor, discover, during a nasty domestic incident, that they are both brothers and mutants. They run away from home, and keep on running for the next century and change. Jimmy and Victor grow up into large hairy men (Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber) who shoot and slice their way through the American Civil War, the trenches of the First World War, the Normandy beach landing of WWII and even Vietnam.
Finally, after they are unsuccessfully executed, the two men are approached by Major William Stryker (Danny Huston) who wants them to join his top-secret all-mutant squad. They include Wade (Ryan Reynolds), a smart-mouthed sword specialist; John Wraith (Blackeyed Peas singer Will.i.am) who can disappear at will; Fred (Kevin Durand), a brute with explosive fists; Zero, a crack marksmen (Daniel Henney) and Bolt (Dominic Monaghan of TV's Lost) who can control electricity with his mind.
Though the introductions are relatively brief, the characters set up the rest of the movie. During the squad's first mission, to capture a magical meteorite in Nigeria, Logan, disgusted with the violence, deserts the squad.
Six years later he's living in the Rockies, making an honest living as a flannel shirt-and-jeans clad lumberjack, when he learns that someone is killing off his fellow squad members. When Kayla (Lynn Collins) is murdered, Logan agrees to participate in an experiment by Stryker that will give him a skeleton made of a rare metal, adamantium, that will make him virtually indestructible. At this point, Logan takes the name Wolverine.
As he recovers from his surgery, Logan overhears Stryker's sinister plan and escapes, naked (this time, a roaring waterfall replaces the mountains as his backdrop). After a sojourn with some pleasant old Ma and Pa Kent-style farmers, he heads off on a detective journey to Las Vegas to reunite with John Wraith and then to New Orleans to track down Victor and learn Stryker's secret plot.
It gives away nothing significant to say that the plan involves the attempt to build a super-mutant who possesses the strength of many other mutants, with none of their weaknesses. The challenge is similar to creating a new superhero origins story. Adding up the elements, Wolverine barely breaks even.
On the positive side, the casting and acting are above par for the genre: Jackman's character is mostly stuck in brooding gear, but his natural warmth comes through. As the darker brother, Schreiber leaves a strong impression as the hulking, cold-blooded Victor. Also persuasive is Danny Huston as Stryker, the Dick Cheney-like military villain, with Taylor Kitsch playing the charismatic gambler Remy LeBeau.
Unfortunately, the talented cast is saddled with some mercilessly flat dialogue, a definite point of vulnerability for any mutant movie ("Before I gut you, I want to know: Why?").
Director Gavin Hood, who has worked mostly in television, is largely interested in iconic compositions and long rushing zooms, but he substitutes spectacle for pulse-quickening action, and not always with the freshest eye. The combination of mountains and muscles is novel, but by this point, it has to be said: Blowing up a CGI-created nuclear-power plant just feels so old.