Sunday, May 3, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

I’ve been suffering from a malaise of disappointment ever since walking out of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, so much so that I felt hesitant to write about it. The series has reached such heights (including X2, one of the best superhero movies ever made) that seeing it fall into so much dismaying mediocrity is disheartening. Some fans have complained about the dip in quality between the second and third installments. Wait until they see this.

There’s nothing wrong with the basic story. Wolverine is a cool character, played well by Hugh Jackman, and the movie’s loaded  with cool mutants. But the movie rushes forward like an abridged version of a story with more complexity than we are presented. Relationships between characters are confused, vague, and undefined. This is a rushed, simplistic, movie that trots out characters for a scene or two then hustles them to the sidelines or to their death. The ensemble has been the highlight of past X-Men films. Why keep these characters underused, especially if the extra screen-time isn’t going to be used toward doing more than barely sketching in Wolverine’s background?

The movie starts in 1845 with a soap-operatic scene of confused familial lineage that ends up having no bearing on the rest of the plot, other than to showcase a young Wolverine discovering his bony claws. Then we’re thrust into a montage of wars in which Wolverine and his brother (the future Sabretooth, played by a game Liev Schreiber) fight. It’s never exactly clear why they’re fighting but I just accepted it, not knowing that it signaled a lack of attention to detail that would plague the film throughout. After they get in trouble in Vietnam, the two mutant brothers are approached by General William Stryker (Danny Huston, taking over from X2’s Brian Cox) to join a Dirty-Dozen-style team of mutants for covert missions. The first scene involving the group (which includes mutants with vaguely-defined powers and personalities played by recognizable faces like Ryan Reynolds, will.i.am, and Dominic Monaghan) works fairly well. It moves with a zip and clarity that the movie can never replicate afterwards.

Wolverine quickly leaves the group and moves on until we catch up with him in love with a school teacher and working as a lumberjack. He’s pulled back into a revenge story after the school teacher is killed, a revenge story that’s only a little convoluted and involves injecting adamantium into his skeleton in a procedure presented with none of the visceral horror of the very brief flashbacks in the previous films. The dialogue is often obvious and clunky; the cinematography is equally uninspired. The movie races through its plot, strewing loose-ends and haphazard tie-ins trying to look and plan simultaneously backwards and forwards along its franchise trajectory.

Almost ten years ago, Bryan Singer directed X-Men. At the time, the chief criticism of the film was that it spent too much time explicating the powers and relationships of the various mutants before plunging into the plot. This movie, directed by Gavin Hood, of the slightly overrated Tsotsi and perfectly-rated Rendition, proves that the first film’s approach was correct. The first film, the first two films actually, slowly revealed mutant after mutant, plot-thread after plot-thread, carefully expanding the world of the franchise and grounding them in a slick, stylized reality with real-world (or a gleaming, Hollywood version thereof) sociopolitical ramifications to these mutants. Here, the movie has no consistent tone and dashes through melodrama and not-so-special effects with little style and less wit. These are colorful mutants in cool situations. Why isn’t it more fun?

It’s not an exactly awful film, but it's seriously underwhelming. I expect more from this franchise; at its best, the X-Men films are powerhouses of blended art and commerce (like the great string of superhero films last year which gave us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight, and Hellboy II). With the bar set so high, Wolverine had much farther to fall, making it even harder to watch as it failed to entertain me. What a way to start the summer movie season.

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