Saturday, May 2, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

When Brett Ratner took over Bryan Singer's lauded X-Men franchise and promptly ran it into the ground (though the script was bad regardless of who directed it), fans were justifiably pissed. After all, now that the dust has settled, X-2 stands as the first great comic book film (Spider-Man 2 aged terribly). So, after Fox deemed enough time had passed to let the nerd rage calm to a simmer, they decided to put out a prequel charting the path of everyone's favorite Canadian mutant, Wolverine.

Just how much of a badass is he? The film opens in the Northwest Territories of Canada in 1845, a full 25 years before the Northwest Territories were actually founded. Presumably he claimed the land for Canada when he stumbled out of the womb. We see him as a young, sickly lad tended to by his close friend Victor. Victor's father comes to fight young Wolverine's (née James) dad, things go awry, James has bone claws, and suddenly he's well enough to run away with Victor -- I mean, I know he has healing powers, but they just decided to work right there and then along with the claws? -- whom we learn is his half-brother.

In a credits sequence that greatly mirrors Watchmen's we see the two fighting through every major conflict between the 1840s and the mid-70s. I don't think this movie is copying Watchmen but we seem to be getting a strange trend of Forrest Gump-like opening credits this year. In Vietnam the two sign up for secret ops, only to go crazy in the jungle and start killing their own men. Enter Major William Stryker, who collects for an even secret-er group comprised of mutants.

These early moments are fine and distracting, if dry and rote: we meet some mutants that fanboys will know but the rest will just stare at blankly. Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), the Mercenary with a Mouth, fights with the boys alongside Kestrel ( and the Blob (Kevin Durand). They tear through their mission with extreme prejudice, pausing only to beat some answers out of warlords. Eventually Logan has enough and leaves, but tragedy brings him back into the fold, thirsty for revenge. Stryker, knowing that Logan's healing ability makes him a prime candidate for the perfect soldier, injects him with the super-strong alloy adamantium, even replacing his bone claws for those metal beauties that made him an icon. Stryker promises Logan his revenge, but as soon as he knows the operation is a success he orders the newly-created Weapon X's memory erased. Within earshot. Sigh.

So Wolverine breaks out and spends the rest of the film seeking revenge not only on his brother but on Stryker as well. It's a mindless popcorn flick, which isn't so bad if it was a standalone film. But the purpose of this or any prequel is to delve into its characters; I mean, we already know what will happen to Logan, so a prequel should serve to show us the character evolution that formed who we saw in the X-Men movies. Yet the writers mistake actions that happen to Wolverine to be development rather than his reactions to those actions. And it fast-forwards through the moments that really define his pain (i.e. cramming all of his war history into the credits and only spending ten minutes with pre-Weapon X secret ops). So, the "Origins" part of it all was left to the wayside. And even if they did explore Logan, he forgets everything at the end because he must; otherwise the continuity established by the proper X-Men films would be damaged. Which begs the question: why bother? They could have put these efforts towards a new X-Men installment, or at least used the Weapon X program to make a comment on insidious government practices (when waterboarding and other forms of torture are in the news every day!).

Jackman is, of course, in his element as Wolverine, and Liev Schreiber is excellent as Victor/Sabretooth. But apart from Danny Huston's wonderful-if-caged-in performance as Stryker, no one else should be there. It's not that Reynolds is a bad Deadpool, or that Lynn Collins can't pull of the role of Logan's wife/Silverfox; they simply have nothing to do. They fall into the trap set by 99% of all franchise films: they pay empty lip service to die-hard fans who are just going to be outraged that some of their favorite characters are little more than cameos. Of the people presented, only Deadpool could conceivably have a film of his own (the character is one of the more original in comics), but they'd have to seriously overhaul him and essentially act like this film never existed.

Most disconcerting , though, is newcomer Gavin Hood's direction. Hood directed the acclaimed small-budget feature Tsotsi (it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film), but you'd have a hard time guessing he earned some praise with his work here. Clearly out of his element, Hood falls back on so many action tropes that Seltzer-Friedberg will actually have to put in some effort if they want to out-parody this. We have useless establishing shots, sloppily edited fight sequences, and the NOOOOOOO yell. Seriously, if you take a shot every time Wolverine rears back and screams into the heavens, well, you might just enjoy this movie.

Nevertheless, I do not begrudge Hood for his failure. I haven't seen his other work, and I imagine he's a competent if not extremely talented filmmaker. But the suits hired him so they could call all the shots, and the result is a waste, just like the rest of the film. Some fans are already acting like it killed their parents, and it's not nearly as bad as all that; yet it lacks any real spark to keep it going and is clearly hitting marks the whole time. As I sat through it's constant stream of bad one-liners, disposable characters, and phoned-in resolutions, I finally realized what was wrong with the whole thing: I was watching James Bond with superpowers.

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