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Not so great X-pectations

Wolverine 's shaggy-dog backstory
By PETER KEOUGH  |  May 7, 2009
2.5 2.5 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine | Directed by Gavin Hood | Written by David Benioff and Skip Woods | With Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, and Lynn Collins | Twentieth Century Fox | 107 minutes
It doesn't bode well when one of a movie's supervillains has a Roman numeral for a name. "Weapon Number XI" — it sounds like a sequel — can be seen as a metaphor for this third installment in the X-Men franchise. He's a motley assortment of superpowers, just as the movie is a grab bag of familiar tropes, plot devices, conventions, and stereotypes. Apart from some genuine archetypes and myths that find their way into the mix, the film's overflow of half-baked ideas adds up to a cluttered, nondescript, "Weapon Number XI"–like mess.

It does takes a while to reach that tipping point. These origins go way back, at least as far as the 1840s in Canada's Northwest Territories, where a Cain-and-Abel scenario by way of Oedipus unfolds. A young boy — James Logan, the future Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) — lies sick. Hovering over him is another boy, Wolverine's future counterpart and nemesis. And Victor Creed, or "Sabertooth" (Liev Schreiber), has a knife in his hand and murder in his heart.

As it happens, the two must flee civilization together, fellow mutants with eternal life and lethal, lycanthrope-like talents that carry them through a brilliant montage of carnage, from the Civil War to Omaha Beach to the Vietnam War (it's here that Wolverine and Sabertooth start to part ways on the matter of atrocities) and ultimately to a firing squad. At which point creepy Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston) makes note of their special talents (it took only 125 years for someone to pay attention) and enlists them in a murderous military unit of similarly gifted freaks and outcasts. But the collateral damage starts to stick in Wolverine's craw, and he walks away to the illusory refuge of the Canadian Rockies and a loving woman (Lynn Collins) in what looks like an episode of Ax Men.

We all know how long that's going to last. And that, in turn, is one of the problems with the film — we all know almost everything that's going to happen, either because director Gavin Hood (and what is Wolverine if not Tsotsi with foot-long blades popping out of his knuckles?) telegraphs it with a telling detail or because it's a plot turn iterated in a dozen other movies. Wolverine draws on such familiar elements as the Hulk's anger issues, an Uncle Ben figure with a motto to live by ("We all have a choice" echoing "With great power comes great responsibilities"), and the rote moral about not becoming evil in order to combat evil. There's even a little nod at the previous administration's pre-emptive foreign policy. What the film doesn't have, on the other hand, are the top-notch special effects you expect in this genre. When Sabertooth charges on all fours, he looks as menacing as a frisky fox terrier.

Hood doesn't come close to the achievement of Bryan Singer, whose X-Men (2000) was the first and the best in the series. But now and then he cooks up an inspired image, as in the sequence where Wolverine undergoes a Frankenstein's monster–like transformation as his bones are bonded with an indestructible alloy called adamantium. He breaks free and stands naked, and for a moment all the myths he embodies are bonded as well — Prometheus, Lucifer, Jesus. And then he becomes just mutton-chopped Hugh Jackman in just another movie sequel.

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