Friday, May 1, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine. An X-Men Retread With Four on the Floor

The latest X-Men movie, which fills in the Wolverine back story that was so heavily alluded to in the previous three X-Men movies, delivers the first major punch of summer, and successfully so.

This movie has more testosterone flowing than all the syringes of Major League Baseball, and three times the biceps. There's also a hefty dose of swordplay, gun play, grotesque medical experiments, and violence, so it's not for everyone. If I had an alter-ego who reviewed films from only the perspective of movies like, say, The Reader, I might give this a single star. There's no subtlety lost in this film. But for fan-boys eager for a big dose of masculine growling and brawling, and a pretty healthy dose of buff mutants going at it in Extreme Cage Fighting style, it's a hit. So take my endorsement with a grain of salt: I'm addressing it to fans of the comic-book action / brains-turned-off popcorn-movie type of flick.

First, let's review why this movie pleasantly surprised and gave me the first big thrill since last summer's Iron Man. For one, I'm thankful to finally be rid of the Good X/Bad X dynamic of the past three X-Men - not to mention the geeky uniforms and hokey cartoon elements like invisible super-ships. This film is free of those easy categorizations and cartoon gimmicks, so the moral dynamics are more complex and...shall we say...muscular...and really allow us to get more involved in the action. Even better, we finally get a full-on fill-in of the back story alluded to in all the other movies. For an X-Men fan, we finally have a film that pulls no punches, and does so in an environment where the powers are both new and powerful, a raw force tied to survival and passion. I found that both refreshing and invigorating - the kind of real emotion generated by the original Aliens or Terminator. There's also finally a real-life adult romance, and a rather nice use for an Indian legend - at least the best one I've seen in an action movie, of late. All of which is to say, this film really delves into character, as much as a cartoon can, and hits a raw emotional note that pulls the audience deeply into the film.

In this case, the raw emotion is revenge. You might call this film an action-man's Sweeney Todd, and it progresses inexorably towards a similar kind of dread and death. Yet it also presages the original three movies, allowing the ending to tie up nicely all the allusions the other films left hanging unsatisfyingly.

One does miss Bryan Singer on this outing. Singer has a particular felicity with ensemble films, and without him at the helm, this X-Men feels singularly thin: Hugh Jackman does his best imitation of himself, and now that he has to carry the entire film, we realize how much Singer allowed the other mutants to support him. He may not be such a star as recent Biography bit would have us believe.

On the other hand, Liev Schreiber makes Sabretooth come alive, and shares a masculinity with Jackman that adds a level of complexity and counterpoint that other X-Men really missed. This is a movie that trusts its instincts more than its intellect, that explores the dark side of violence and war, and shares more with military-inflected movies like Watchmen and Three Kings than typical X-fare.

There are also cameos by real actors like Will.i.Am and Ryan Renolds (giving one of his best performances) as well as interesting characters like Gambit - who I must confess is the only X-Man whose superpowers I can't figure out. It's like he's got some kind of a mutation of the Cool gene.

Ultimately, though, X-Men Origins is an origin story, or rather, a coming-of-mutation story, and so it is basically about how Wolverine got his claws. As such, we pretty much already know the plot...and there are a couple of glaring holes in how this one is told. Particularly, Stryker's plan makes no sense as it unfolds (how can one NOT have any contingencies for Wolverine when he's got the same contingencies for everyone else? Oh, I suppose because he's being played by Hugh Jackman. But Stryker's astonishment at Jackman's escape left me flabbergasted for a full twenty minutes before I could get back into the story).

Oh, but plot doesn't really mean much here: we get cool fight scenes, cool mutants, and some really disturbing military experimentation. All so much the creepier.

Star Trek also borrows and rehashes an old plot for its reboot. I guess the borrowing works better for me in X-Men because Wolverine vastly improves the plot it borrows: there's a nicely done contrast in this movie between the raw nature of the Wolverine, at home in the pristine pine forests of northern Canada, and the sterile medical creepiness of The Island, where Stryker experiments on his mutants. That contrast forms the backbone of the movie's evolution, and moves the story in a way that resonates much more viscerally than earlier X-Men films. Never mind that this is the exact same plot from X-Men II: this movie kicks ass significantly more. Plus, these X-Men are both deadly and pretty damn cool. They leap, float, fly, shoot, and swash buckle with twice the speed of their Matrix counterparts.

That may not equal double the fun, but it was more than I was expecting from a stew made of summer's past retreads. And certainly an entertaining way to kick off this year's summer movie season.

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