Thursday, April 30, 2009
'Origins' explores Wolverine's beginnings
I'm not an X-Men junkie. I can't tell you whether "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" will please those who've immersed themselves in the comic-book series. But as someone whose seen the "X-Men" movies, I can tell you that "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" generates enough heat to keep its heroic mutants on Hollywood's payroll.
Switching gears from his work in "Rendition," director Gavin Hood takes the helm of the series to tell us how Wolverine finds his way to mutant stardom. Hood tends toward streamlined thinking, clinging to the basics of comic-book filmmaking. He steeps "Origins" in bellicose melodrama, amped-up action and fleet editing. The movie clocks in at a reasonable 97 minutes.
Hood also embraces (perhaps too eagerly) the excesses of the comic-book form, and he seldom misses an opportunity to show off Hugh Jackman's torso. I know a woman who plans to see "Origins" only because of Jackman. She'll see a lot of him. At one point he appears in the buff, turning into Nude-o-rine, a mutant streaking across a green meadow. Wolverine seems to have no trouble finding time -- even during the most difficult situations -- to strip down to his T-shirt for a fight. Mostly, Jackson seems to be acting or flexing, which in this movie probably amounts to roughly the same thing.
Liev Schreiber makes a welcome addition to the cast. He portrays Victor Creed, the mutant who eventually turns into Sabertooth. Creed is Wolverine's brother, an animalistic mutant who embraces his status as something that sets him apart from the rest of society, particularly in areas concerning morals. A tightly edited opening credits sequence marches through several wars. Besides learning that mutants can recover from wounds that would kill any human -- a handy skill -- we see that Creed has no compunction about killing innocent people. He's the living, breathing dark side of the mutant force, and Wolverine constantly struggles to prove that he's not like his bad-boy brother.
Besides Shreiber, the biggest additions to the story are Danny Huston (as a rogue general) and Lynn Collins (as a teacher with whom Jackman's character becomes romantically involved when he flees government service and tries to live normally). Wolverine's attempt at domesticity does not involve a leap into some manicured U.S. suburb. He works as a lumberjack in Canada and lives in an isolated cabin atop a mountain bordered by spectacular cliffs. Collins' characters shares Wolverine's humble abode, but her role doesn't amount to much. Huston, on the other hand, seems sharp as a twisted military man who sees the mutants as potential WMDs.
In movies such as "Origins," government almost always can be counted on to do the wrong thing. At a time when polls tells us that most Americans are thinking positively about the present administration, this mistrust of official power may not resonate as loudly as it has in previous editions. Perhaps to compensate, "Origins" adds psychological gloss to its anti-government posturing; father/son conflicts and sibling rivalries dominate. Don't look for depth, though: These issues are so clearly pasted onto the movie's surface, they might as well be labeled.
If you seek out "Origins" do it because of your devotion to the boldness of its comic-book conceits and for a backgrounder on how Logan became Wolverine. I'm not suggesting that "Origins" is without logical flaws, but overall it computes, and it builds toward an ending that features a nice ironic touch. (I wish Hood hadn't bothered with a short scene that's dropped into the end credits. It ties up a loose end that didn't need tying and gives the movie an unneeded moral slant. I also could have done with one less agonized scream from Wolverine, who seems to drop to his knees and howl every time he hears tragic news.)
Hood, who won an Oscar for his South African movie "Tsotsi,'' keeps the pacing tight, and seldom wavers from his obligation to give the audience a mega-helping of Jackman. Buffed and ready, Jackman serves the role well, although I'm not sure he has the depth that a different actor might have brought to the proceedings. Maybe it doesn't matter. This isn't a movie that suggests; it screams its thoughts out loud, carrying them right into some typically bloated end-of-picture action.
"Origins" is not big on astonishing revelations. We learn how Jackman got those retractable metal claws -- devices that seemed hard to square with any known facts about evolution. Mostly, though, "Origins" takes familiar "X-Men" themes, and laces them throughout this look backward. Can mutants harness their powers for the good of mankind? Should they?
The action sequences are mostly good if overly abundant, and, with a couple of exceptions, the special effects are fine. I don't know whether "Origins" has blockbuster potential, and its tethered to the a problem most origin movies face: It must march us toward a conclusion that we've known from the outset. Still, "Origins" does enough to ensure that the series doesn't topple from its perch as a mainstay of our comic-book culture. Is it great? No. But I'd be wary of those who insist on sharpening their claws on it.