Saturday, May 2, 2009

Movie Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Warning: this review contains many spoilers.

The opening of X-Men Origins: Wolverine marks the start of the 2009 summer blockbuster season. While Wolverine will easily top the box office this weekend, unfortunately the movie itself falls short of expectations.

I've purposely avoided most news, spoilers and footage for this summer's biggest movies so I can walk into the theater with minimal preconceptions. That tactic worked in my favor with Wolverine since I was surprised and excited to see familiar names like Dominic Monaghan (Lost, Lord of the Rings) and (of the Black Eyed Peas) in the opening credits along with the names I expected -- Liev Schreiber, Ryan Reynolds and Hugh Jackman. After generating that initial excitement, however, the movie never really succeeds in rising above its clichéd plot elements.

The film opens with a quick glimpse into young Logan's traumatic childhood and we learn why he and older brother Victor Creed aka "Sabretooth" (Schreiber) are inseparable during the century-and-a-half that follows. It's interesting to see Sabretooth set up as Wolverine's brother in this movie since, in first X-Men movie (2000) with wrestler Tyler Mane playing the character, there had been quite a bit of fan speculation on whether the character was actually Wolverine's father.

The war montage showing the brothers fighting side by side from the Civil War through the Vietnam War is well done with skillful visual transitions. The montage actually made me want to know more detail about what happened during those years instead of skipping toward more current events.

After that, the predictable plot elements continue all the way through the movie.

  • Logan and Victor's recruitment into a secret military team? Check.
  • Logan's eventual disenchantment with the tactics of the aforementioned secret military team? Check.
  • Logan's dramatic exit from military team and breaking away from his increasingly violent and animalistic older brother? Check.
  • Logan finding the love of a good woman who accepts him as a mutant with emotional baggage? Check.
  • Logan's love murdered by his evil brother and Logan going to extremes to avenge her death? Check.
  • Logan receiving a rare moment of kindness from an older, parental-type couple who are eventually killed? Check.
  • A couple of somewhat interesting plot twists at the end? Check.

While journey of the hero and anti-hero is a well-worn cinematic path, the best movies find a way to elevate the journey into something greater than the sum of its very familiar parts. Wolverine isn't a bad movie but, despite the quality of its cast and Hugh Jackman's ability to convincingly portray both the kinder, more sensitive Logan and the desperate, angry Wolverine, it never manages to become more than a formulaic action flick. And when something is formulaic, it's impossible to create the edge-of-your-seat tension that makes dramatic action movies fun. Even the appearance of well-loved X-Men characters failed to generate as much interest as they could have.

The long-awaited introduction of Remy LeBeau aka Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) felt anticlimatic. If I hadn't watched the X-Men cartoon as a child, I doubt I would have understood what his power was or how it worked. Seeing a young Cyclops and the power of his mutation unleashed was a treat, as was hearing that first whisper in his mind of instruction from Professor X. The cameo by Patrick Stewart as a pre-wheelchair-bound Professor X was my favorite, but sadly the CGI was very poorly done. When standing, the figure was preternaturally stiff and they took the reverse-aging effect that was used so effectively on Stewart and Ian McKellan in X-Men: The Last Stand and pushed it too far. Instead of looking like a younger version of Professor X, it looked like Xavier had visited the same plastic surgeon who did Kenny Rogers' eye lift.

As an action film, there are a few highlights to enjoy. Ryan Reynold's too-short time on camera was definitely a bright spot. Playing what is essentially a souped-up version of his character from Blade: Trinity, Reynold's swordplay as he blocks flying bullets and clears a room to allow his team safe passage was the best weapons use in the whole film.

The climactic battle pairing Wolverine and Sabretooth against Weapon 11 was also very effective. Pitting the brute force of the brothers against such a well-honed weapon created some of the only true tension in the movie.

Two "hidden" scenes were included at the end of the film, one of which centered on Weapon 11 after the climactic battle and the other on William Stryker's fate. It's rumored that these hidden scenes vary depending on which print a movie theater has received. Fans need to sit through to the very end of the credit roll if they want to see both scenes.

The X-Men franchise has a rich legacy upon which to draw if the Origins series continues. If they want the series to be successful and draw in new fans, however, they'll need to invest as much effort in good screenwriting as they did on good casting.

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