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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Directed by Gavin Hood

Although I’ve seen the three installments of the X-Men series, I wouldn’t say I’m a die-hard fan of the franchise, and I certainly wasn’t overly enamored of the last X-Men entry, X-Men: Last Stand. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the choice to back things up a bit and examine the origins story of one of the more popular characters, Wolverine, in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

I found Wolverine to be one of the more interesting “good guy” characters in the previous X-Men films, mostly because he’s so tormented and conflicted, and there’s this whole air of mystery around who is, and who he was before we met him in the earlier films. (This is largely because Wolverine has amnesia, and no one, including him, knows what exactly happened to him prior to how he forgot everything.)

X-Men Origins: Wolverine takes us back to the beginning of Wolverine’s history to show us how he came to have those killer retractable claws and that endearingly bitchy attitude. Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition), for the most part, delivers what one would expect any movie in the X-Men franchise to have: some back story, much of it convoluted; lots of battle scenes enhanced by cool CGI effects, heaps of explosions, lots of characters to keep track of, and some bad guys for the good guys to fight.

First, we meet Wolverine/Logan back when he was a little boy in the Northwest Territories of Canada way back in 1840. He’s in a sick bed, being kept company by his best friend, Victor, and in short order events conspire to reveal that the two boys are actually half brothers and mutants. You have to imagine that it’s enough for a small boy to process the news that his father isn’t his father, but on top of that, the poor kid also has to deal with the sudden ability of his hands to grow and retract wickedly killer claws. It could give a boy some issues; actually, how the young Logan deals with all that would have been pretty interesting, but we don’t really get to see that story.

The boys take off into the night together, and then we gallop through a fast-forward-history-lesson opening montage that puts the brothers (now played by Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber) in various military battles throughout the years leading up to the present. This back-to-the-past-that-determined-the-present montage opening scene (which kind of reminded me of the opening of Watchmen, actually, though I liked it better in the latter) has lots of slow-motion moments to make sure we get the point that Logan is, at heart, a conflicted good guy who finds it harder and harder to deal with his badder-than-bad brother’s unpleasant taste for blood, rape and violence.

When the brothers take things too far, they’re executed by firing squad. Or not. The “or not” part interests a military commander, William Stryker(Danny Huston) in the unusual sibs, and before you can say “Um, maybe this isn’t such a good idea …” Logan and Victor have been recruited by Stryker to join an elite force of mutants, including the overly chatty, duel-sword bearing Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand) and the vanishing-and-reappearing John Wraith (Will.I.Am) in executing secret (and perhaps secretly nefarious) missions on behalf of Stryker. Victor takes to the game of military-sanctioned violence like a duck to water, while Logan, being the good guy, is conflicted — and ultimately abandons the group to make his own way.

Of course, everything up to this point is really just setting the stage for how Stryker connives to get Logan back and turn him into the virtually indestructible Wolverine. The excellent Huston plays a wicked bad guy, but I was left more than once wondering why all these mutants-with-superpowers couldn’t just take down this man who is, after all, simply a mere mortal. I know, I know, there’s the whole philosophical “if we kill you, we’re just as bad as you” thing, but still.

At times the CGI special effects get over-the-top and Hollywood-stereotypical — and, more concerning, in the way of the actual story — but for the most part, the film holds your attention while you’re there. The storyline is interesting enough, filled with plot twists and betrayals, and the conflict between the brothers is, oddly enough, reminiscent of a similar good brother-bad brother setup in last year’s Defiance, in which Schreiber played the part of the more violence-prone of a pair of brothers fighting Nazis opposite good-brother Daniel Craig.

Schreiber may end up getting typecast in this kind of role, because he’s very, very good at playing men prone to violent outbursts and love of the shedding of other people’s blood. The conflict between the brothers in Wolverine never quite reaches the level of heartfelt honesty of the brother-betrayal conflict in Defiance, though it’s hard to say it that’s because Schreiber’s character in Defiance was flawed but redeemable, whereas Victor/Sabretooth seems less so.

In any case, Schreiber is certainly a fiercely powerful force on-screen, and it’s nice to see him continue to exercise his considerable skills as an actor off the stage, although I’d rather see him in something more compelling and dramatic than a comic-book film.

It’s simplifying things to say that Wolverine lacks conflict — he’s so chock full o’ conflict, it radiates from him, even during the brief lull when he’s trying to live a normal life as an underpaid lumberjack, but the script doesn’t always allow the intriguing possibilities of that to fully come to fruition. Further, although we know from the future X-Men stories that Wolverine has amnesia and hence, won’t remember anything that happens in this film, it’s interesting to ponder how the events that unfold might still be affecting his later choices on a subconscious level, and what might happen should he ever gain full memory of the love, hate and betrayal so heaped upon his broad, manly shoulders here.

Jackman, fresh off a nice turn as the host of this year’s Oscars, is as buff and studly as any woman dragged to see Wolverine by her husband or boyfriend might hope (and, like Doctor Manhattan’s wilder, more animalistic younger brother, he appears nude in the film, though thankfully sans any adamantium-enhanced dangling bits), but it’s the skill he brings to playing this conflicted hero that allows the film to rise somewhat above the mere CGI spectacle it might have been.

-Kim Voynar

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