'Wolverine' Is a Mutated Mess
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Let us imagine that you are the powers-that-be at 20th Century Fox. After the money-making success of the serviceable "X-Men," the quite good "X2: X-Men United" and the lackluster "X-Men: The Last Stand," you know you want to move forward with the franchise and do spin-off movies. In the name of profit and prestige, you immediately decide to ... do a prequel. No, you're not moving the universe forward; you're going to take two steps back and explain how one of the franchise's breakout characters, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), came to be who he is. Never mind the fact that this kind of sucks any tension out of the film -- no matter what happens to Jackman's Wolverine, we know he's going to be fine because he's around for "X-Men" -- it also represents the fact that over-explaining some things is a great way to kill them. Wolverine's an amnesiac loner with a cloudy past and metal claws that pop out of his forearms. Do we need to know a lot more about the character than what we got in "X2: X-Men United" to enjoy his slashing, snarling and scowling his way across the screen?
But "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is a prequel, and director Gavin Hood ("Tsotsi," "Rendition") shows us the character's beginnings, from his youth in Canada in 1845 (which wasn't even called Canada back then, but never mind) to his fighting in a number of wars (Civil, First and Second World, and Vietnam) alongside his similarly fast-healing half-brother. Then he's recruited for a team of special operatives with superhuman mutant talents overseen by William Stryker (played by Brian Cox in "X2," but as a younger man here by Danny Huston). The group includes Wolverine's half-brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) and works toward shadowy ends, so when Wolverine has had his fill of killing he gets out. But they keep pulling him back in.
Stryker hates mutants, but he's willing to take advantage of them, much like George W. Bush seemed to feel about smart people. He's the man behind Wolverine getting his skeleton augmented with an unbreakable metal, making him an even fiercer killing machine, but that's all just part of a bigger plan. Stryker's running the genetic equivalent of the Play-Doh Fuzzy Pumper Barber & Beauty Shop, hoping to combine the DNA-quirk abilities of a number of superhumans into one controllable killing-machine package to crush the mutants under his thumb. Wolverine, in the tradition of existentialist everyman heroes everywhere, is the only guy who can stop the slaughter.
The name and identity and appearance of the film's ultimate big bad are, apparently, upsetting and shocking to die-hard comic-book fans. It's easy to joke that a number of things can be upsetting and shocking to die-hard comic-book fans, including the prospect of talking to someone they find attractive, using cloth napkins, and the idea of reading an actual book. So while you may be inclined to dismiss that concern, I can't because it spotlights the biggest problem with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Bluntly, if you're not a die-hard X-Men comic-book fan, you're going to be lost, and if you are a die-hard X-Men comic book fan, you're going to be disappointed. It feels as if the effort to please everyone twisted around into an end result that does precisely the opposite. And while David Benioff's scripts have always had a nice masculine morality to them ("Troy," "25th Hour"), this film feels like many meddling hands took his script, which could have been a simple comic-book morality tale, and tacked new characters on until the original idea got weighed down and bent to the breaking point.
Jackman has a gruff charm, as ever, and Schreiber is appropriately feral and ratty as his shadowy doppelganger, while Huston hits the right note of silken menace -- but they're surrounded by so many other characters, so many other superpowers, that they get smeared into a vast, lumpy background. Watching "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is like watching a dull kid play with too many action figures, waving them around by the ankles and obsessing over their accessories and getting so lost in minutiae and skipping from action figure to action figure so fast they never get around to having any actual fun. There's plenty of action and effects -- including a phony, plastic CG face-lift that's creepy as all get-out applied to a well-loved franchise stalwart to make his look fit with the film's late-'70s time frame -- but that scene, like a lot of the movie, feels somehow both expensive and cheap, more than required and yet less than you'd hoped.