The Good: Decent action/effects, Generally the acting, Moments of character
The Bad: Ridiculously predictable plot/character elements
The Basics: When Logan's lover is killed by his brother, he submits himself to a corrupt military officer who turns him into Wolverine, an indestructible killing machine!
I suspect that no style of film has it quite as hard as the prequel. Prequels have to deliver to an audience an origin story that is engaging despite the simple fact that there will be known quantities; known character and plot events alluded to in the works that the current installment is predating. Back when I went to a midnight showing of X-Men Origins: Wolverine with my wife who had never seen any of the X-Men films, I felt I was getting the best of both worlds. As a fan of the cinematic X-Men movies, I was strangely cool coming into X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but I could recognize the principle characters and events to tell if the movie was being true to the film continuity. But my wife afforded me the ability to see the film through the eyes of someone who was completely unbiased. The result, when we discussed it, allowed me a great deal of perspective.
As my partner put it, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is the most predictable and engaging action adventure in a long time. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is disturbingly predictable with plot and - especially - lines that can be called a mile off. Virtually every major sequence and catchphrase for the film was in the movie's trailer and there were moments I was disappointed in that I knew what was coming. So, when my wife decried the film's predictability, I was not surprised, save that she had not seen any previews. Despite not knowing where the film was going, she was seldom lost by the plot, characters or universe of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Born in the early 1800s, Jimmy was a sickly young man whose father is killed and he and a neighbor, Victor Creed, run off into the night. Victor, Jimmy has just learned, is Jimmy's half-brother (same father) and both have tremendous abilities as mutants in that neither one ages and they heal with ridiculous speed. Together, they survive every major war through Vietnam working for the United States. After they are rescued from a firing squad - where they were both shot by several officers - by William Stryker, they are brought aboard Stryker's commando squad of mutants. Jimmy defects when the killing becomes too much for him and he questions Stryker's motives and methods.
Six years later, Logan (Jimmy, renamed) is living in Canada, in love with Kayla, is working as a logger and is happily anonymous. When Victor resurfaces to kill Kayla, Stryker finds Logan and recruits him to kill Victor by replacing his bone claws with an indestructible metal called adamantium, which is bonded to his bones. As Logan hunts the mutant who killed the love of his life, Victor hunts down mutants for Stryker, whose purpose is far more nefarious than protecting the United States.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is limited - obviously - by where it needs to end up. As the lone prequel (for the next few weeks, anyway) to the cinematic X-Men trilogy, there are a few things film viewers are likely to know and that the movie must accomplish. Logan, who goes by the name Wolverine after he allows Stryker to alter him and make him virtually indestructible, must trade in the bone spikes that come out of his hands for adamantium ones, he must end up alone, and he must have no memory of his origins. This film does that.
What the film does remarkably well, as well, is set up the origin of the X-men team. This is done through the appearance of a teenage Scott Summers, better known to fans of the cinematic X-Men as Cyclops. Working for Stryker, Victor is hunting mutants and Summers is one of them who is captured and his escape from Stryker leads to an impressive cameo and puts Summers in play in the X-Men universe almost exactly where the first film found him.
Similarly, for Wolverine fans, this film is filling in all of the blanks they could ever want, at least as far as the movies go. Having not read the comic books - though one suspects that like many comic books there is more than one origin story - X-Men Origins: Wolverine seems to do a great job of tying together the elements that were known from Wolverine's backstory with some new elements, including a pretty incredible new villain that pops up rather late in the movie (and if the scene after the closing credits is any indication, could be setting up for a new franchise). Wolverine - be it Jimmy, Logan or Wolverine - is a pretty standup character who works to do good and wrestles with his place as something more than a man. On that level, X-Men Origins: Wolverine works perfectly and it develops a story that is consistent and well-told, even if there is no real threat that Wolverine will be killed within the film.
Therein lays the difficulty for the film as a prequel. Victor is Sabretooth - one of the villains from the first X-Men (though he bears no resemblance physical or psychological to the earlier, er, later, incarnation of him) - and Stryker is a key player in the second film, so neither of those characters are ever in mortal jeopardy. Most viewers will know this going in. Both of those characters are problematic in their characterization if only on the most basic level of consistency. Sabretooth is inarticulate in X-Men and Stryker never does anything as direct as he does near the climax of X-Men Origins: Wolverine in X-Men 2. The fact that both parts were recast is troubling, especially when one considers that actors like Brian Cox, who played Stryker in the prior installment, were well-established before joining the franchise and Danny Huston is not exactly a box office draw greater than Cox.
Where the draw is likely to come in for many moviegoers is the presence of Gambit, who finally pops up in this movie. The rogue character was a fixture in the X-Men animated show that many of us grew up on and his appearance here is fun and very cool. Similarly, Wade Wilson and John Wraith are cool characters who make memorable appearances in this film. Moreover, it makes perfect sense within the concept of the prequel that any of the characters outside the three are expendable. Fortunately, some do survive and no doubt, should there be a fourth X-Men film they might resurface.
Despite my gripes with the characterization of Stryker near the film's end (his actions are suitably reprehensible, but not at all within character) and my love of Brian Cox's work, Danny Huston does a great job holding his own as Stryker. Similarly, Will.i.am and Ryan Reynolds make great use of their time on screen and become likable, viable characters. Reynolds is different as Wade than anyone I had ever seen him portray. Lynn Collins has decent onscreen chemistry with Hugh Jackman and director Gavin Hood does a decent job of not overplaying Collins's in her scenes.
Despite the incongruence between Sabretooth in X-Men and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Liv Schreiber is exceptional as Victor Creed. Schreiber is a respectable actor who did wonderful work in Defiance earlier the year this film was released. He brings a similar moodiness to the much more physical role of Victor and truth-be-told it is nice to see Schreiber lend some weight to a character who might otherwise be reduced to catchphrases. Schreiber sells the basic psychosis of Victor with his glaring eyes and the force he conveys through them is impressive. But as important, Schreiber lends Victor a sense of articulation and realism that allows him to dramatically hold his own against Hugh Jackman as Logan.
And it is Jackman's job to rule X-Men Origins: Wolverine and he does it perfectly. Jackman manages to be interesting without overbearing and the real acting challenge for him has to be that he is recapturing the flavor of the character he began playing almost a decade ago without simply repeating his performance. Jackman does more than snarl through the role and that alone makes the character and his performance work.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is not flawless. The action scenes are heavily choreographed, the surprises hardly are for anyone who loves movies (there were two moments that truly shocked my wife and I) and there are lines that are so predictable as to make one cringe. Still, there is enough to enjoy and I was surprised by how much fun a film with so many predictable aspects could be. This is a great start to summer blockbuster season for anyone looking for a decent action adventure film.
For reviews of the other X-Men films, please check out:
X-2: X-Men United
X-Men III: The Last Stand
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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.