Sunday, May 3, 2009

Movie Review: "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is the type of movie that immediately forces its admirers to come up for excuses in its defense. "It's just summer fun." "It's brainless action escapism." "It's just a comic book movie." "At least the special effects were good."

While many people are no doubt using those same phrases to defend the fourth installment in the tired "X-Men" franchise, the truth is that "Wolverine" is pretty much defenseless in a time when "Iron Man," "The Dark Knight" and even the other "X-Men" films have proven that comic book films needn't be brainless event films without plot, character or deep meaning.

Indeed, in recent interviews, the film's producers have invoked "Dark Knight," saying that this dark, gritty take on the edgiest of the X-Men is what audiences are clamoring for right now; a brutal, harrowing anti-hero epic.

Maybe audiences are clamoring for that in the wake of "The Dark Knight"...but they aren't going to find it in this cliched, braindead and maddeningly mediocre summer entry, which tells us how Wolverine got his shiny claws and wound up an amnesiac in the Canadian wilderness when we first saw him in 2000's "X-Men."

It turns out that Wolverine, better-identified as Logan (Hugh Jackman), was a sickly kid in the mid-1800s. He was cared for by a man who said he was his father but wasn't; the movie doesn't explain why that's important but goes to great pains to reveal it in its opening sequences. His brother is Victor (Liev Schreiber) who, like Logan, can heal quickly from any wound and sprouts long fingernails; Logan doesn't yet have his metal claws and, as a child, spouts gnarly bone extensions.

Anyway, both Logan and Victor grow up and decide to fight for their country. Actually, that's not true. They decide to fight for their neighboring country and, in the film's best sequence, we see them fightining side by side in the Civil War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam (apparently they stayed out of the Korean conflict. They are then recruited for an all-mutant black ops squad that includes samurai-sword wielding Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), Agent Zero who can shoot very fast from the Black Eyed Peas, who dresses like a cowboy and can teleport. Things go horribly wrong on a mission in Nigeria and Logan decides he's had enough and leaves to go work as a lumberjack in Canada and live with a beautiful woman in the Canadian Rockies, where female viewers will happily see him frolicking without a shirt. Victor, now known as Sabertooth, doesn't take kindly to this and kills Logan's woman. Logan, angry and seeking revenge, returns to Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston) and volunteers to have his skeleton laced with Adamantium, a rock-hard substance derived from a meteor that gives Wolverine his ginsu-bones.

But wait, there's more! See, Wolverine wants to track down Sabertooth, so he boxes a really fat guy and then plays cards with a cool Cajun named Gambit whose superpower seems to be either charging playing cards with energy and blowing them up or hitting things with his walking cane so that they blow up. A lot of things blow up in this movie, by the way. There's something about caputring mutants and sending them to Three Mile Island, we see a teenage Cyclcops in high school and then Wolverine and Sabertooth fight Deadpool, who now not only grows samurai swords from his hands shoots from his eyes, but he's also bald, his mouth is sewn shut and he's no longer played by Ryan Reynolds for reasons that are never explained. I haven't even mentioned the introduction of adamantium bullets, which we're first told will kill Wolverine and then are informed will only cause him to lose his memory.

I'm, in principle, opposed to the idea of prequels. We know they're going to deal with characters who will live to fight another day. Even many of the villains introduced in this film show up again in the X-Men trilogy, so there's not much in teh way of suspense there. And while there may be a promising idea in seeing what made Wolverine who he was, I was never really too curious. I'm not a comic reader so I don't know his backstory but I felt we were given sufficient information in the first two "X-Men" films. Here we don't really learn much about him as a character--all the interesting ideas about his bond with Sabertooth or his romance in Canada are just rushed through to get to an overly complex plot that exists only to throw in as many Easter Eggs for comic book fans as possible and introduce characters for further spin-offs (a "Magneto" one is in the works and I'm sure we'll see Deadpool get his own movie soon enough).

Hugh Jackman's a charismatic, likeable actor who never seems to catch a break. Wolverine's his best-known role and I admire the way he's thrown himself into promoting this film; he's proud of the work he's done here. But, honestly, I don't know that this is a good step forward for him. What made Wolverine such a cool character was his mystery, his edge and his humor. Here, the mystery is explained and he's basically shown to be a softie from the very beginning, questioning everything he's asked to do and being a hero from the get-go...the thing that made his arc in the first two "X-Men" films so strong was his reluctance to be a hero. But here, there's none of that. He's been declawed.

Much more intriguing would be a deeper exploration of his journeys with Victor/Sabertooth. Liev Schreiber is one of those actors who grows on me each time I see him and he's definitely the standout here. He's a bloodthirsty, angry mutant who can't understand his brother's hesitations. Had the movie followed Logan and Victor through war and ended with Victor's betrayal and Logan's agreement to turn into Wolverine, the movie would have been more compelling. Instead, it's a mish-mash of barely passable action sequences and ludicrious plot turns.

Director Gavin Hood is definitely out of his element here and I hope he's not one of those directors that fizzled out after his first masterpiece. "Tsotsi" was not a subtle movie but it was unflinching, humane and emotionally resonant. His follow-up, "Rendition," was ignored by critics and audiences in 2007. Here, he's been given the keys to a big-budget action film and yet can't seem to inject anything unique. The entire "soldier betrayed by his outfit goes seeking revenge" plotline has been done to death...this is a Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal movie with mutants (without the benefit of starring Chuck Norris). Hood makes no attempt to get into Wolverine's head or explore his relationships--we never know what drew him to the woman whose death puts him on his journey and we never really see him bond with Victor or any of his other mutant friends. Everything just jumps from one plot point to another, from action scene to action scene without any resonance or depth.

And here is where the excuses will start. "It's a summer comic movie! It doesn't have to be deep or meaninful!" But I'm not buying that excuse anymore. "Iron Man" managed to inject wit, style and class into the genre and still be a fantastic's worth noting that there's not a whole lot of action in that movie. But we remember the action sequences because we spent time with the characters and seeing their relationships and, when things heated up, there was something at stake. It showed enough respect to the characters and the audience to take the time to slow down and build a story that gave the action a reason.

"The Dark Knight" will likely become the go-to film for comic book examples and I don't know that's fair--"Dark Knight" has more in common with crime dramas like "Heat" than with the entire superhero genre. But its box office success shows that audiences are willing to deal with deep themes, dark characters and a solid buildup before jumping into action. Even the "X-Men" trilogy itself took time out of the special effects to deal with thematic issues like genocide, homosexuality, disease and civil rights. "Wolverine" asks us to follow Logan because, hey, we liked him in the other movies...he must be worth following here. But there's never anything compelling enough to show WHY we needed this material. And Hood is so out of place that he resorts to every single cliche--the slow-motion walk from a fireball, the team marching down the street side-by-side like in "Reservoir Dogs," dialogue like "we're not too different, Logan" followed by the always dependable "I'm nothing like you." And, my personal favorite, the main character in a moment of despair staring up at the sky and screaming "NOOOOOOOO!!!!!"...we get this beloved chestnut twice, actually. If you thought it was bad in "Star Wars," you ain't seen nothing yet.

But let's honor the logic for a moment that because "Wolverine" is a summer comic book movie, it's to be enjoyed as nothing more than fun escapism. To that, I'll say that the movie never gives me anything that I haven't seen done better in other movies. Shootouts with impossible physics? "The Matrix" did that a decade ago. Brutal fistfights with claws stabbing into someone...there's nothing here that hasn't been done before better in the other "X-Men" films. A character jumping onto an aircraft as it crashes? If John McClane couldn't get away with it in 'Die Hard 4' then why should Wolverine be exempt? The ultimate fight above a nuclear power silo is ruined by shoddy effects and choreography that is so computer-assisted that nothing feels real. Even the end twist of how Wolverine ends up as an amnesiac is ham-fisted and non-sensical. Say what you will about "Transformers," but as brainless as that film was it gave me special effects and action on a scope and scale I had never seen before.

And that's another thing. This film cost close to $150 to make but the special effects are surprisingly bad. There's a scene where Wolverine is examining his claws in a mirror where it seriously looks like they animated it with 2D looked like someting out of "Roger Rabbit." Some of the other effects--a jeep being shredded, a nuclear tower crumbling--look like the special effects were initially loaded into a computer and then a final touch was never put on. A cameo by Patrick Stewart is just creepy in its lameness--which is pretty sad, considering that "X-Men: The Last Stand" presented a young version of Stewart that was extremely convincing.

Had "Wolverine" not been the movie to start off the summer, I likely wouldn't be so hard on it. But this is just a suprisingly bland, pointless action entry that should have been shuffled with the other mediocre action flicks usually released in February or March. How come Wolverine is able to forget everything that happened in it but I can't?

1 comment:

  1. Liev Schreiber in particular did an awesome job from all the way through; he brought some genuine acting prowess to the whole production



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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.