X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Director: Gavin Hood
Screenplay: David Benioff and Skip Woods
Stars: Hugh Jackman (Logan / Wolverine), Liev Schreiber (Victor Creed / Sabretooth), Danny Huston (William Stryker), Will i Am (John Wraith), Lynn Collins (Kayla Silverfox), Kevin Durand (Frederick J. Dukes / The Blob), Dominic Monaghan (Chris Bradley / Bolt), Taylor Kitsch (Remy LeBeau / Gambit), Daniel Henney (David North / Agent Zero), Ryan Reynolds (Wade Wilson / Deadpool), Scott Adkins (Weapon XI), Tim Pocock (Scott Summers)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2009
Country: U.S.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
X-Men Origins: WolverineIn Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), the first entry in the four-films-and-counting franchise based on the popular Marvel comic series, there is a scene in which Dr. Jean Grey, having just analyzed the physical condition of the fan-favorite mutant named Wolverine, explains that his skeleton is coated in a nearly indestructible metal known as adamantium and that “there is no way of telling how old he is.” In the first few minutes of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first in a proposed off-shoot series of films that explain the origins of the most popular X-Men characters, we find out exactly how old Wolverine (born James Logan) is: old enough to have fought in the Civil War, as well as World War I, World War II, and Vietnam.

As its somewhat unwieldy title promises, X-Men Origins: Wolverine gives us the entirety of Wolverine’s backstory, beginning as a sickly child in the Northern Territory of Canada where he first discovers that he has retractable claws made of solid bone that emerge from in between his knuckles when he is angered. Once again portrayed by Hugh Jackman, who also coproduced the film, Wolverine’s story is intertwined with that of his half-brother Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber), who is similarly powerful and has razor-sharp claws, but is more prone to violence and lack of control, which is why, as fans know, he eventually becomes a villainous mutant known as Sabretooth (played with considerably less psychological complexity in the original film by wrestler Tyler Mane). Their paths run parallel courses for nearly 130 years until breaking apart after they are recruited out of Vietnam by General William Stryker (Danny Huston), who puts together a special unit of mutant soldiers to carry out particularly nasty black ops assignments.

Like most tragic heroes, Wolverine tries to walk away from his past and hide his special abilities, eventually finding peace in the Canadian mountains where he works as a lumberjack and lives with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), a beautiful schoolteacher who knows of his abilities and his past, but loves him anyway. Alas, peace is not to last, and soon Wolverine is drawn back into both a bloody feud with Victor and the dark margins of the military-industrial complex, where Colonel Stryker convinces him to undergo the experimental procedure by which his skeleton will be coated with adamantium. Combined with his ability to heal almost immediately from any mortal wound, the adamantium makes him all but indestructible. But, like Frankenstein’s monster, Wolverine refuses to be his maker’s puppet, which means that he becomes both a hunter and the hunted.

As is true of the previous X-Men films, Wolverine is generally well-cast, and it also benefits greatly from Hugh Jackman having already played the title character in three previous films (it was, in fact, the role that made him a name in Hollywood). Rather than playing Wolverine as simply a cigar-chomping wise-ass, Jackman imbues the character with a sense of tragedy and pathos, as well as a genuine desire to be “normal” that belies his amazing powers. If there is a weakness, though, it is that we never fully sense the animal within, as if the filmmakers were reticent to let him get too “wolfy.” As Victor, Liev Schreiber is allowed significantly more nastiness, but never so much that he becomes purely villainous. Rather, he plays the character as Wolverine’s dark side, what the hero might become if he ever let go completely of his humanity. The rest of the cast is filled out with cameo appearances by mutant characters who will be familiar to long-time readers, including Ryan Reynolds as the sword-slinging Deadpool, Dominic Monaghan as the electricity-controlled Bolt, and Black Eyed Peas frontman Will i Am as the teleporting John Wraith.

Gavin Hood, the South African filmmaker who won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for Tsotsi (2005), but then struck out with his Iraq-themed Hollywood debut Rendition (2007), brings a decidedly darker tone to the material than either Bryan Singer or Brett Ratner, who helmed the previous X-Men films. Perhaps emboldened by the monumental success of The Dark Knight (2008), Hood does not shy away from some of the story’s darker thematic underpinnings and its rootedness in anger, revenge, and betrayal, although he never really delves into Wolverine’s “animal” side. Screenwriters David Benioff (25th Hour) and Skip Woods (Hitman) recognize that Wolverine’s backstory is not a happy one, and they allow for plenty of ambiguity and loose ends, although much of the socio-political dynamic involving tensions between humans and mutants is left out. However, there is plenty of room for big action setpieces, including a genuinely thrilling motorcycle/helicopter chase through the mountains and a showdown atop the rim of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, which is amusingly used to explain the 1979 meltdown that took place there.

Of course, as much as parts of the film work, there is also the nagging sense that this is all incredibly unnecessary, especially since much of this story was already told in much more expedient fashion in Singer’s X2 (2003). Origin stories can be catastrophic when badly told or when they undermine a character’s mythic status (see, for example, 2006’s awful Hannibal Rising), and while X-Men Origins: Wolverine comes nowhere close to that kind of disaster, it is never quite good or original enough to justify itself beyond an obvious extension of a money-making franchise that won’t quit as long as the cash registers keep clanging.

Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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