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X-Men Origins: Wolverine
X-Men Origins: Wolverine continues the downward slide of the X-Men film franchise - a very sad thing indeed. I am a big fan of the X-Men trilogy, including the much-maligned third film. Although Brett Ratner was unable to sustain the fluid panache of Bryan Singer's first two entries in the series, X-Men: The Last Stand was a compelling enough movie, strengthened by a subversive plot, strong performances, and a brilliantly-handled final shot. The idea of the X-Men Origins series of prequels and spin-offs is a smart one, and it wouldn't have required much brainstorming to launch the series with the backstory of the franchise's most popular character. Unfortunately, Wolverine's background is well-covered in X2: X-Men United, and the remaining holes aren't particularly interesting. Nevertheless, X-Men Origins: Wolverine wastes no time filling them with crap.
The pre-credits sequence establishes James Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Victor Creed/Sabertooth (Liev Schreiber) as brothers, growing up in 1840s Canada. We follow them through history, as they fight side-by-side in a number of wars, while the credits roll. Following their service in Vietnam, they are approached by Major William Stryker (Danny Huston), who offers them a special mission. Stryker's team of mutants wreaks havoc worldwide in service of the major's own twisted goals - which ultimately involves the co-opting of mutant powers in order to eradicate the mutants themselves. Disillusioned, Logan leaves Stryker's team for the backwoods of Canada, where he works as a lumberjack and lives with his girlfriend, Kayla (Lynn Collins). Creed locates and attacks Kayla, and Stryker tempts Logan back with the promise to aid his revenge on Creed. Logan then assents to having adamantium grafted to his skeleton, making him into the virtually indestructible Wolverine of the first three films. However, as Logan learns Stryker's true intentions - and of his collusion with Creed - his mission becomes clearer and the fight is on.
Dense plotting does not mean good plotting, and little that happens in Wolverine makes any kind of sense. I expect more from the generally talented David Benioff, who was the first writer on the film. (In his defense, he has only a co-writing credit here, so I assume his work was much tampered with). Inconsistencies, plot holes, and oddities abound. Kayla appears out of nowhere, then is suddenly taken away, then reappears again. An elderly couple are casually assassinated. Logan screams a lot while baring his claws. Sabertooth and Wolverine run at each other - more screaming - and fight over and over and over again. There is also a scene with Logan facing Fred Dukes in a boxing ring that is just plain bizarre.
Not only are things weird and repetitive - all while we learn nothing about the characters - but this just doesn't feel like an X-Men story. With the possible exception of the last twenty minutes, when there are a few glimpses of the X-Men world of the trilogy, Wolverine plays more like a watered-down First Blood than a superhero adventure. Motivations are largely vengeful, without any of the sense of wonder that characterizes the best of the superhero genre. Sadly, even the action sequences are unsatisfying and unimaginative. The fights are all exactly the same, and the bigger set pieces are marred by surprisingly unfinished-looking CGI effects. (There's some pretty half-assed rear projection work, too.) The final fight atop a nuclear cooling tower belongs in a video game and is totally devoid of any sense of danger. On the plus side, there are a few compelling visual ideas, but they are too briefly seen to undo the impression left by the sub-par effects.
The actors don't feel committed - the performances are half-hearted, and that goes for Jackman's, too, and he helped produce. The messy, incomplete script, and shoddy attention to visual effects in a movie that would normally focus heavily on them, bespeaks a production under studio pressure and manipulation. It's hard to blame South African director Gavin Hood, who won an Academy Award for Tsotsi in 2005, and received acclaim for Rendition in 2007. He was likely in over his head directing a studio-controlled genre picture that doesn't really suit him. I am sure he will revert to better things. Still, it's hard to credit the lack of imagination or fun in Wolverine. Driven by Singer, who was involved through preproduction of The Last Stand, the trilogy shared strong, specific themes and vision. Now, the franchise flounders as it searches for a point of view - I hope someone finds it before the next inevitable entry in the potentially wonderful X-Men Origins series.
The enhanced 2.35:1 transfer looks close to pristine. The image shows good contrast, showcasing the interesting - if dark - color palette chosen by director Hood. The overall visual presentation is hampered by the aforementioned lackluster special effects, but the transfer is solid.
The 5.1 surround track is bold and effectively active. Surrounds are decent, even though the mix gets a little busy at times. The good score by the dependable Harry Gregson-Williams is occasionally lost amid the sound effects. Alternate Spanish and French stereo tracks are available, too.
There are two commentary tracks: one with director Gavin Hood, and one with producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter. Then there is a great Conversation with Stan Lee and Len Wein, where the legendary comics writer discusses the origins of Wolverine. Wolverine Unleashed: The Complete Origins briefly looks at the making of the film. A few short deleted scenes round out the extras. One of these is a scene extension with an appearance by a young Storm - it looks really silly, though, and was wisely cut.
Brett Ratner first, now Gavin Hood - who will be the next director to be blamed by legions of fanboys for fucking up the X-Men series? I personally don't blame either director, but an anxious studio unable to resist overworking a big-budget tentpole picture. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a missed opportunity. Completist fans may want this for their collections, but most everyone else should just rent it.