Monday, May 4, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The 2009 summer movie season began this past weekend not with a bang, but with the constant snikting of claws. As a typical, summer action film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is certainly a fun movie, every bit as entertaining as any other action film you're likely to find this summer. As an X-Men film, however, the end product is considerably lacking.

The film begins in the mid 1840s with an all-too-brief scene featuring the death of the man young Logan (here called James for some reason) calls 'father'. He and his brother, Victor, then flee into the night, transitioning into the film's title sequence, where we see the two as grown men, fighting in every major US war since the War Between the States. It must be said that this is a fantastic sequence, showcasing not only the fact that these two are basically ageless immortals (regenerative healing factors, potato, potahto), but also Logan's growing disdain for Victor's growing bloodlust.

The film proper picks up in Vietnam, after the two have just been executed (or not) by firing squad. Here, the two are recruited by military man Stryker (Danny Huston) to a team of mutants embarking on covert operations in Africa. We meet a number of mutants here, several of which turn up in varying capacities later. Logan (Huge Ackman, natch) decides to quit the team at the end of the first act, and the remainder of the film plays out like one part Highlander, one part Death Wish, one part X2. Years later, Victor (Liev Schrieber, acting circles around Tyler Mane from the first film) begins picking off his former teammates, which inevitably draws our hero back to Stryker, who offers to make him indestructible in order to hunt down and kill Victor. Thus, we enter the Weapon X part of the plot.

I feel like I've explained the plot enough, but saying any more wouldn't really matter, because after Wolverine gets his signature claws, the plot degenerates into "Meet mutant X, fight mutant X, mutant X takes us to mutant Y, repeat". The first forty-five minutes or so actually represent a decent Wolverine film, at least on par with the original X-Men, easily miles ahead of where Brett Ratner took things in The Last Stand. Sadly, as Robert Frost would put it, nothing gold can stay. The way the second half of the film handles character is basically what kills the movie for me. After the care that was taken to introduce characters like Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) and Wraith (Will.I.Am), the film decides to take not only the comics, but also its own continuity and toss it out the window.

The first sign of trouble comes when Wolverine encounters The Blob (Kevin Durand). Early in the film, we meet the character, whose power is basically his tankproof skin. Fast forward 45 minutes, he's now a morbidly obese boxer. This is the Blob we know from the comics, the Blob who was always a morbidly obese carnival act. I get why they made the change for the film, it just made sense. But it's only the beginning. Blob points us in the direction of Remy LeBeau, aka Gambit (Taylor Kitsch). Here, his original power of charging objects (which then explode) somehow gets translated into explosive telekinesis. Sure, his MO is throwing playing cards, we know that he's a skilled card player, but that in no way denotes an ability to make playing cards float through air. Also, he can now apparently do any and everything with a bo-staff. These things, while cool to watch on screen, are just categorically wrong.

Then there's Cyclops who, in his brief cameo, showed that he can now shoot heat rays out of his eyes rather than the concussive beams that he's used not only since 1963, but also in the three previous films. It's an incongruity that I'm glad I'm not the only one to have spotted. Then, of course, there's the whole Deadpool fiasco. In that instance, I'm okay with the changes they made (well, a few anyway), because it does at least work within the context of the story. Still, though, it's indicative of the filmmakers deciding to do what looks cool rather what the fans want. I doubt any fan of Gambit or Deadpool is clamoring for more of the characters as portrayed in this film.

And that, I think, is what this film ultimately comes to. As much as Tom Rothman and everyone at Fox claim that this movie is for "the fans", it's clearly not. This is one of those movies whose inevitable failings tend to get chalked up to it being "just a dumb summer action movie." This is a movie for fans of the other movies, sure, but the care that Bryan Singer took in creating the X-universe is all but gone here, replaced with on-the-nose soap opera flourishes and CG claws that look two or three more renders away from looking at all realistic.. Whenever Logan looks up and screams over the dead body of a loved one, we laugh rather than feel for him. When Logan and Victor race toward one another with the intent of killing one (three times, even) another, we don't care because we know both will fight each other once again in the 2000 X-Men film. Moments like this are peppered throughout the film, and do little to keep us invested in Logan's journey.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine entertains on a purely visceral level, but for the "fans", there are too many holes, incongruities, and false notes to really stir up much enthusiasm. For their part, Liev Schrieber and Hugh Jackman are a lot of fun to watch together (and apart), but the plot, continuity, and barrage of special effects simply can't keep up.

2.5 stars (**1/2) out of five.

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