X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens today, and, while the film features strong performances from Liev Schreiber and Hugh Jackman (as well as many gratuitous shirtless scenes), critics say it's just another generic superhero movie.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine, as the title would suggest, tells the story of how the Marvel comic book character Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) grew from being a Canadian boy into the clawed, adamantium-lined mutant seen in the previous three X-Men films. The film begins in 1845 and reveals that Wolverine was born a mutant, with bone claws that shoot out of his knuckles. His father is killed and he and his half-brother, who later becomes the evil mutant Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), run away to America. The brothers fight in every war in U.S. history through the Vietnam War. They are asked to join an elite mutant unit put together by Col. Stryker (Danny Huston), which also includes John Wraith (will.i.am), Chris Bradley (Dominic Monaghan), and Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), but Wolverine becomes disgusted with the group and quits. He tries to start a new life as a lumberjack in the wood with his girlfriend, Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins), but eventually his Sabretooth and Stryker catch up with him.
So do the critics: reviewers say the film does not live up to the standard set by last summer's The Dark Knight or Iron Man, and, though the performances are good, there may be little point to the film beyond watching Wolverine and Sabretooth claw at one another. Below, the critics' specifics on X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Despite a couple of "Nooooo" yowls, Wolverine is well-acted, with spectacular action and witty one-liners. The special effects are top-notch. A few plot points raise questions, such as how Wolverine lost his memory. And his romance with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) is unconvincing.
It's a solid, efficient comic book movie that is content to provide comic book satisfactions of the action and violence variety. If it doesn't rise to the heights of Christopher Nolan's Batman films, it doesn't stray into Daredevil territory either.
It also helps that both Jackman and costar Liev Schreiber, who plays Wolverine's even angrier half-brother Sabretooth (don't ask), are fine actors who throw themselves into whatever they take on, whether it be Chekhov or comic books.
The first part of the exploration is fast, febrile and Forrest-Gumpish, what with Logan and his fang-flashing brother Victor, aka Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber) fighting for their country — America, not Transylvania — through a century of savage conflicts from the Civil War through Vietnam. Once that's out of the way, though, Logan and Victor fall to fighting one another — the one with steel claws, the other with fingernails that might have left Howard Hughes feeling well-groomed — in a series of confrontations that keep coming down to cutlery; think of knives vs. sharpeners and you'll have some sense of the film's emotional resonance.
Apart from the heroic work Jackman has put into building up his physique, I wouldn't say that he puts in a great performance. He's either relaxed and amiable or he's folding his face into a fist. It doesn't matter. You like him, anyway. And as one of the film's producers, he pushed for the film to be shot here and in New Zealand, rather than Canada. Consequently, the director, Gavin Hood (Rendition, Tsotsi), and the Australian cinematographer Donald McAlpine make sensational use of the South Island's mountains and waterfalls.
You'd think all this would be enough shrinkwrapped backstory since the movie still needs space to introduce other, newer mutants for their moments in the spotlight. (Ryan Reynolds has fun as the adversary who later comes to be known as Deadpool; Friday Night Lights' Taylor Kitsch gives an inkling of the charms he might display in a future episode as Gambit; Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am makes an appealing feature-film debut as John Wraith, a dude with a gift for now-you-see-him, now-you-don't.) But lest the ladies feel alienated by all the masculine conflict, the movie adds lover's grief as an additional motive for moodiness.
The first time Jackman appeared shirtless, about 15 minutes into the movie, his absurdly pneumatic chest garnered one of the few laughs at the screening that I attended. I can understand why-there's something ridiculous about the very being of Hugh Jackman, with his flaring nostrils and almost equine handsomeness. His best roles are the ones that harness that silliness, but even as a dour action hero, Jackman has enough charisma to emerge with his dignity intact. Liev Schreiber pulls out a few too many stops as the obscurely motivated Victor/Sabretooth, but you have to feel for the guy: From Shakespeare in the Park to this? And Lynn Collins made a lovely Portia opposite Al Pacino's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, but as Wolverine's schoolteacher girlfriend, the quality of her mercy is a bit strained.
The bigger issue is that Wolverine is so uninvolving that you might not care whether you remember what happened 10 minutes ago. For a story that supposedly delves into the psychology of a character to help deepen our understanding of him, Wolverine doesn't offer much more insight into this feral fighter than did the earlier X-Men pictures — Bryan Singer's X-Men and X2 or even the messier, more shallowX-Men: The Last Stand, directed by Brett Ratner. Wolverine purports to tell us more and yet gives us less: It's so cluttered and action-packed that the action ceases to mean anything — virtually nothing the characters do or say results in consequences that stick.
Written by novelist David Benioff and Skip Woods, Wolverine was directed by Gavin Hood, a South African who earlier made two exercises in political solemnity, Tsotsi and Rendition. The new movie has a sharper look and a smarter film sense, because Hood is surrounded by the sort of artist-technicians who can lend cinematic swank to almost any action picture. But that's now par for the course, and Wolverine doesn't rise above the level of familiar competence. What holds it together is Jackman, an actor who suggests the decency that is meant to be at the core of his character. As Logan struggles to tame his Hulk-like temper, so Jackman works to fit his friendly, temperate persona into the action-film superhero mold.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine will most likely manage to cash in on the popularity of the earlier episodes, but it is the latest evidence that the superhero movie is suffering from serious imaginative fatigue. A twist at the end that gives poor Wolverine a bad case of amnesia - turning him into a kind of Jason Bourne with sideburns - is a virtual admission that nothing terribly interesting has been learned about the character. He forgets his origins before the movie devoted to their exposition is even over. It won't take you much longer.
There are reversals and counter-reversals, double- and triple-crosses, truck and motorcycle and helicopter crashes, and enough Jackmanian shirtlessness that any so inclined could produce a detailed topographical map of the lats, pecs, delts, and various outcroppings of muscle that have not yet been named. (If Jackman's bath scene in Australia was a carnal amuse-bouche, here he offers the all-you-can-eat beefcake buffet.) What Wolverine fails to do, however, is give us any real reason to care about the unfolding events.