Hugh Jackman reprises as the fierce fighting machine who possesses amazing healing powers, retractable claws and a primal fury. X-Men Origins: Wolverine tells the story of Wolverine's epically violent and romantic past, his complex relationship with Victor Creed, and the ominous Weapon X program. Along the way, Wolverine encounters many mutants, both familiar and new, including surprise appearances by several legends of the X-Men universe.
It’s always intriguing when an established film franchise hits the rewind button and attempts to provide back story and motivation for its heroes. Star Wars and Batman each had a red hot go, Superman did too (but probably shouldn't have), and even Star Trek got in on the act as well. The latest franchise to look backwards for its new ideas is X-Men, commencing with the story of how a hirsute mutant with anger management issues became the Wolverine.
Surely there are no doubts about why Hollywood feels motivated to revisit its successful action franchises but it’s an undertaking that’s fraught with danger. In setting itself up as the definitive story of a hero’s formative years, a prequel should be a logical explanation of the character’s 'journey’ (for the want of a better word), which in turn, should add new perspective to the original films in the franchise. If you don’t place such careful emphasis on story, you end up with a mutation of the franchise, which aptly brings us to X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
The X-Men series works because it sets up a logical premise about mutants and their fractured relationship with humans generally, and Government specifically. Wolverine undoes all that good work with a plot devoid of the internal logic that made (most of) the other films believable.
The film opens to – what else? – a dark and stormy night in ye olden days, when a young and sickly Logan is being nursed by his caring father (Peter O’Brien) under the watchful eye of Logan’s close friend/next-door neighbour, Victor. Before long, Victor’s drunk and angry father (Aaron Jeffrey) comes knocking and delivers a fatal message to Logan’s dad. This sets off a chain of events in which the vengeful Logan impales the murderer on newly-sprouted knuckle blades, and learns too late that the violent neighbour was – what else? – his own kin. The revelation begs further explanation but none is forthcoming (though the man’s considerable facial hair is pretty sound proof of his paternity). Aside from ticking the 'Confused Lineage’ box that seems a prerequisite of any action hero, the scene is the first demonstration of Logan’s ongoing conflict between impulse and restraint.
After a brief speech from Victor to his new brother about coming to terms with who/what he really is, the boys flee into the night to parts unknown, though their final destination must have been an army recruitment office. In an impressive CGI extravaganza that marks the opening title sequence, the now-adult Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber) find a socially acceptable outlet for their mutant aggression in the armed forces, and we see them engage in a series of bloody battles through the ages, from the American Civil War to the present day. Though it never explains why they stop ageing once they reach their late thirties, it looks cool, and with the benefit of hindsight, the thought occurs that the opening titles are arguably the best thing about the film.
Those afraid of spoilers can read on safely; there’s nothing below that isn’t hinted at in the trailer. After being recruited to an elite group of mutant commandoes, headed up by the Machiavellian Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston), Logan and Victor fall out over the latter’s unbridled bloodlust and Logan quits the group mid-mission. Six years later he’s living the quiet life on a mountain-top in the Canadian Rockies (seriously), shacked up with a gentle and persuasive school teacher, Kayla (Lynn Collins). He is occasionally haunted by aggressive visions but otherwise he’s the picture of rustic and domestic bliss: He spends his days chopping wood and toning his pecs, and his nights cooing over tales about lost love and the lunar cycle, which serve the dual purpose of signposting a major plot point and of planting the seeds of inspiration for the mutant moniker, Wolverine.
One day, he’s paid a visit by one Col. Stryker, who gives him a heads up that his old squadron buddies are being hunted down one-by-one and he’d better watch his back. Stryker neglects to mention that it’s Logan’s errant sibling Victor who’s doing the hunting, but that fact reveals itself soon enough, when Kayla encounters her de facto brother-in-law in the forest. After Logan cradles her lifeless body in the first of many angry outbursts directed skywards, he wastes no time – doesn’t even stick around to bury her, in fact – and sets off to hunt down his bad, bloodthirsty bro. Now it’s personal, you see.
At first there seems no ready explanation for why Victor is picking off his former comrades. A self-defeating protest at the disbanding of their platoon, perhaps? No, the real reason lies in - what else? – a Frankenstein sub-plot that involves a sort of potpourri of the mutant gene pool. Stryker explains that only way for Logan to have his vengeance is via an extreme makeover that will reinforce his blades – and everything else – and make him indestructible. This raises an interesting issue that filmmakers must face when deciding to do a prologue: How do you create a suspenseful storyline in which the hero faces legitimate danger, when you know how it’s going to turn out? Putting aside for one moment the character’s alleged invincibility, the audience already knows that he’s going to survive any mortal combat, since there are three films already in the can that prove he lives on. So the film becomes less about whether our hero makes it, and more about how many CGI fight scenes one director can cram into one movie. And cram them in he does.
The film is overloaded with CGI, to varying degrees of success; our hero walks away from more rear projected explosions of CGI machinery than you can point a fake fire extinguisher at, and Patrick Stewart appears on screen in a brief frozen-faced cameo, proving that Benjamin Button was a fluke, and there’s still a ways to go before digital trickery can restore a 69 year-old actor to his pre-X-Men days.
That many of the film’s performances are laughable is more the fault of the hammy dialogue than anything else. I don’t think any Wolverine ticket holder goes in expecting Beckett, but surely a creative team whose previous efforts include Tsotsi and The Kite Runner is capable of delivering more than this tripe.
As the scowly hero of the title, Hugh Jackman does a decent job, though when all is said and done, there’s no great insight into his character’s mindset. Liev Shreiber fares well as the only menacing presence in the film but even he seems like he’s phoning it in sometimes. Some audiences might find comic relief in Ryan Reynolds’ turn as a cocky, mouthy mutant whose reflexes make him a dab hand with a machete, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll find his wisecracks interminable, and relish the fact that after a splashy first scene, he is largely absent for the bulk of the film. Other characters merely serve as plot devices, including Will.i.am as the shapeshifting Kestrel (in the musician-turned-actor’s second experience of teleportation), Taylor Kitsch as Gambit, and a silly turn by Kevin Durand as a blabber mouthed Blob (who knows the intricacies of evildoers' plans but conveniently avoids explaining why they'd confide in him). On the bright side, local audiences will have fun trying to find fault with the yankee twangs sported by the many Australian actors in speaking parts.
Wolverine is the type of movie that gives popcorn movies a bad name: a switched off, by-the-numbers explosion-fest dressed up as biography, which milks a successful brand of its integrity and a loyal fanbase of its goodwill and pocket money.