[National Review Online: May, 1, 2009]
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fanboy. So why did I get such a kick out of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”? Because the title character is an interesting guy, with a complicated history and complicated feelings. Because the plot has some good twists, not all of which are straightened out before final credits roll. Because the story totes us around to an abundance of intriguing locations and sets, from a Nigerian diamond-processing floor to a Las Vegas boxing ring to an alley in the French Quarter to a nuclear reactor. (My favorite was the trailer of a melancholy carnival worker, stuffed with vintage toys and wind-up gadgets, and a hundred bare bulbs dangling from the ceiling.) It’s got people, places, and stuff worth looking at, and that gives any movie a good head start.
Of course, a lot of that people, places, and stuff is put there just so it can get blown up. This is a big-boom movie, designed to appeal to the segment of the moviegoing public that likes noisy spectacle—fighting in particular. These characters fight like other people use cell phones. As Victor / Sabretooth (Liev Schrieber) attacks Logan / Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the latter asks, “Why?” Victor replies, “You don’t call, you don’t write, how else am I supposed to get your attention?”
These characters come from a very successful comic-book series from Marvel, and they’re known as the X-Men. What they have in common is that they are all mutants, and each has a super-power of one sort or another. However, they’re not necessarily people who bear up well under having a super-power, and not all are inclined to use that power for good. Most are leading an uncertain and lonely life, wondering why they are not like everyone else, until they are recruited by Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston) to be part of a shadowy government program.
That sounds a bit formulaic; what hooked me was the opening sequence. It’s 1845 in the “Northwest Territories, Canada” (an alert viewer points out that neither name would have been correct in 1845; at that time it was the northwestern region of British North America). Young Victor Creed is visiting his sickly friend, Jimmy Logan, when Victor’s dad bursts in the front door shouting. He kills Jimmy’s dad, and Jimmy, in a rage, sees long claws erupt between the knuckles of his fist. He kills Victor’s dad with one blow, only to learn that the man he called father was not, in fact, his dad; he has just killed his own father. As the two boys run away, Victor tells Jimmy, “We’re brothers, so we have to stick together no matter what, and take care of anyone who gets in our way.”
Now comes the sequence under the opening credits, and it’s great. The children run, and as they run they are changed into men, soldiers, fighting in the Civil War. It’s clear that Victor and Jimmy not only have powerful built-in weapons (Victor has tigerish claws) but also have the ability to instantly heal, so that they are virtually impossible to kill. (They also age at a slowed-down rate). The shouts and clatter of battle continue, but there’s a shift, and now the uniforms are those of World War I. Another shift, and the brothers are landing on the beach at Normandy. Yet another change of scene, and they are in a village in Viet Nam. Victor drags off a girl and throws her on a bed, and the other soldiers try to stop him. Jimmy, as always, defends Victor. When they survive death by firing squad, it attracts the attention of Col. Stryker, and he invites them to join the band of fellow mutants sent on special missions around the world.
That’s where the story picks up, and it’s mighty entertaining. I can say that, even though I’m not much of a fan of blowing stuff up. In fact, many of the fight scenes have little justification, as far as the plot is concerned. It seems pretty clear that the thinking was “What would it look like if Wolverine fought Gambit? What if he fought Agent Zero? What if he fought the Blob?” and so on, down the line. The pretext for one conflict is that the character is angry at Wolverine, and it would help him work out his emotions if they went a couple of rounds. Also, you need most of the characters around to fight another day, so they can’t ever fight conclusively. At the end of some fights, a participant simply walks or runs away.
There are chases, too, entailing a number of different kinds of vehicles—“What would it look like if he was fighting a helicopter while shooting guns and somersaulting through the air?” Again, it seems pretty pretext-y. I know that, for many of the fans eagerly awaiting this movie, the chases and fights are the icing on top, but I just tune out. Such things only matter if they advance the plot, and they usually don’t. I spent a lot of time in pleasant reverie, thinking about my grandbaby. She’s cute as a bug.
There are some clunkers. There are more than enough lines like, “Having fun yet?,” “Let’s do this,” “You’re getting slow, old man,” “Figure it out,” “If you go down that road you won’t like what you find.” Some plot points are too compressed, with setup and resolution mere minutes apart. Several times we cut away from a character, cut back, and he’s suddenly wearing a different expression. (Usually one that looks like the director had just said, “Okay, that’s the expression I want. Hold it!”) The character Remy LeBeau / Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) has an atrocious Southern accent (“It’s naow oah nevah”). Speaking of expressions, Hugh Jackman does a great “tormented,” but his mama should have warned him that if he keeps puckering his brow like that it was going to get stuck that way.
“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is enjoyable, even if you don’t care for fightin’ and chasin’, as Gambit would say. Though there’s a lot of impact, there’s very little blood, if that helps you decide about whether it’s for kids (the rating is PG-13). There’s romance but no sex, and only one naughty word. Wolverine must escape naked at one point, and runs across the landscape like a marathoner from ancient Greece, but it’s handled discreetly, if not coyly. It’s a fun movie, and could serve to hook more fans into the vast, unfolding X-Men story. (If you’re one of them, you’ll want to stay till the end of the credits.) But if you’re not a fan of explosions, you could find some stretches boring. I hope you have a grandbaby.