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X-Men Origins: Wolverine - Review

Thursday, April 30, 2009




WHAT a shocker: mediocre indie film-maker turned mediocre studio director-for-hire delivers mediocre comic-book movie. If the producers of the cumbersomely titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine were hoping to find the new Chris Nolan, Bryan Singer or Sam Raimi with this first spin-off from the hugely successful Marvel franchise, they've backed the wrong candidate in Gavin Hood. The South African director may have won an Oscar for best foreign-language film with his worthy-but-dull post-Apartheid ghetto drama Tsotsi, but with his follow-up film Rendition there was no disguising the bland nature of his directing style with subtitles and pseudo-exotic locations. Rendition was one of the dullest, most inept Hollywood political thrillers of recent years, and the skills that created it are in full force in Wolverine.

Though rumours abound of studio interference, which may account for why the story barely hangs together, that can't be blamed for the general lack of imagination on display in the visuals, the absence of excitement in the set-pieces, or the way the very qualified cast barely seem able to connect with each other on screen. Instead all that comes through is a certain misplaced arrogance that this kind of blockbuster film-making is easy to pull off, when nothing could be further from the truth. It takes a special kind of directorial élan to make a good comic-book movie: a reverence for the source material is paramount, but so too is an ability to take essentially pulpy characters and over-the-top plot lines and create for them a vibrant, dynamic and believable world (as opposed to a realistic one) in which it's easy to lose yourself for a couple of hours.

One of the best examples of this kind of filmmaking remains Bryan Singer's first X-Men movie, which took a popular long-running, but hardly Spider-Man-famous, comic book series and effortlessly sketched out why a bunch of weirdly costumed mutant super-heroes should make for compelling characters. The key scene was the introduction of Wolverine, a snarling, feral, hirsute loner with nine-inch retractable steel claws and a bad case of amnesia. Given to head-cracking bouts of berserker rage, intense introspection and the occasional flash of sarcastic humour, he was played with magnificent confidence by the then unknown Hugh Jackman (a last-minute replacement for a suddenly unavailable Dougray Scott). Together with Singer, he ensured that the character's first few minutes on screen were instantly scorched into the memory of any blockbuster fan who saw it. Here was a protagonist in a populist movie that looked as if he was worth spending time with and exploring.

Or so it seemed. The single biggest problem with Wolverine is that Hood offers up no convincing reason why the character needs a stand-alone origins story, especially since so much of what's covered here was referenced in the first two Singer-directed X-Men films. If anything, all Hood manages to do is transform the character into a bore by stripping him of any mystery. If you've seen either of those first two efforts, you'll know that at some point in his past, Wolverine underwent a torturous military-backed experiment that resulted in his skeleton being fused with an indestructible metal known as "adamantium". With his memories also ravaged, the only clue to his identity came from the names on his dog tags: Wolverine and Logan.

This new film is thus a padded out, sequential adventure revealing how these two things happened, with Hood delivering lots of badly constructed scenes showing us how Logan first discovered he had retractable claws, how he got his name, hell, even where he got his leather jacket from. Not since George Lucas spent more than six hours detailing in excruciating and inconsequential detail how Darth Vader came into existence has a popular character's story arc seemed so irrelevant.

The tedium kicks off in 1845 with a rushed and confused prologue that introduces us to little Logan's father (yes Wolverine is very old) who apparently is not the man Logan thought he was. What bearing this has on proceedings is never made clear, since the film quickly introduces us to Logan's stepbrother Victor (Liev Schreiber) who, comic book fans will know, grows up to be Sabretooth. Indestructible brothers in arms, they are shown, in a Watchmen-style credit sequence, fighting side-by-side through the world's major wars until a youngish general by the name of Stryker (Danny Huston) recruits them for a special ops team full of mutants. More mind-bogglingly dull back-story follows, including Logan's years as a haunted, disillusion war veteran living the quiet life as a logger with his schoolteacher girlfriend in the Canadian Rockies, which is Hood's drawn-out way of tipping us off to the ineffectively handled third-act narrative reveal he's got planned. Meanwhile, he further signals how confused this film is by proceeding to introduce at least a half-dozen more mutants into the story, including Cyclops from the first three X-Men films, and fan favourite Deadpool (a very brief cameo from Ryan Reynolds). Sorry, I thought this was called Wolverine, not "Wolverine & Co".

As for Jackman, physically he may look the part thanks to his widely commented hyped exercise regime, but did all that time in the gym drain him of all the exuberance, humour and depth of feeling he brought to the character first time round? Apparently. The only time we see a glint of the old Wolverine is in a final, post-end-credits shot of him necking saki in a Japanese bar. It's a blatant fan-courting sequel set-up, but also where this film should have begun.

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