Saturday, May 2, 2009

Reel To Reel: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

The first cut isn't always the deepest.

Going Rate: Worth it for any Hugh Jackman or X-Men movie fan, but lacking for any newcomers to this franchise
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schrieber, Danny Huston, Will.I.Am
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Violence (low blood), Language (moderate to low), Brief Faraway Nudity (Jackman running wild in the wild with nothing below the belt)

Parts of Wolverine remind me of last year's Iron Man, that comic-book movie surprise which impressed beyond its predicted fan base. I see a smidgen or two of that film in this one. Just a smidgen, and it's mostly in Hugh Jackman's engaging performance which answers that long-nagging question: How'd he get such a great set of knuckle blades?

This prequel to the X-Men films assumes you know about mutants, those freaks of nature gifted or cursed with super powers who live in an uneasy detente with the rest of society. With that out of the way, the picture starts with the young Wolverine-to-be Logan (Jackman) in 1800's Canada making a traumatic discovery and a deadly choice. He and his brother Victor Creed (Schreiber) run away, and then their lives fast-forward through the Civil War, two world wars and Vietnam. Did I remind you mutants are darn near immortal? Guess what happens when Logan and Creed are sentenced to die by firing squad for conduct unbecoming of a soldier.

If you can't kill 'em, recruit 'em. William Stryker (Huston) puts the brothers on a team of mutant soldiers looking for the source of a mysterious metal. We get to watch them efficiently tear up and kill anything they want to in order to find Stryker's gold, but Logan cuts loose after Stryker orders the destruction of an African village that refuses to cooperate with him. Logan heads back to Canada, finds a girlfriend Kayla (Lynn Collins) and lives in this cottage with a postcard view. His killing days are done. He's a lumberjack, and he's okay.

Stryker finds Logan some years later, warning Creed has been killing other mutants and offering Logan a new opportunity. Logan refuses untile Creed offs Kayla. Now it's personal, and Logan agrees to participate in Stryker's new project: having his skeleton hardened with adamantium -- that mystery metal Stryker finally found -- so he can take out his revenge, now as Wolverine, against Creed. The process also sharpens his bony claws into killer blades. Before he's out of the lab, though, Stryker double-crosses him, and Logan makes a break for it again. He seeks out Creed and has not one but three snarling, clawing showdowns. That immortality is such a pain. Wolverine also learns Stryker is trying to create the perfect mutant on some secret island, if he can find it.

Jackman shows nuance as he learns to balance his animal and human natures while trying to control his killer instincts. We see a few moments of warmth as Wolverine spends time with his girlfriend, and later, with an elderly couple who befriends him after his naked escape from Stryker. The movie delivers a few great action scenes aside from its mostly hokey Logan vs. Creed fights. A few other X-Men characters get cameos as we see the foundations of the team later to be schooled by Charles Xavier.

My favorite aspects of X-Men are not Wolverine or its cast of mutants but its social statements on tolerance and segregation, which are sorely missed here. I would've liked to have seen more of Wolverine's childhood and his time in the service. Is there a don't-ask-don't-tell rule for mutants? Are superhuman powers addressed in the Geneva Convention? I'd rather see more of that than Stryker's plastic Dr. Evil character, who I'm sure will remind people of Dick Cheney.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine will do well as a typical summer event film because it has enough testosterone and action to satisfy, but it doesn't have much beyond that save for Jackman's performance which is trapped in a comic-book film. He came to Tempe for the world premiere and loved the crowds who voted for the film's opening city and packed a multiplex to see him, free at last.

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