The Canadian mutant and sometime X-Man returns in this solo sequel, prequel, spin-off, or sidebar. As the title suggests, this is an origin story, with the loner hero played once again by Hugh Jackman in his Clint Eastwood/Every Which Way But Loose mode. Packed with claw-shredding action and adventure, the film more or less delivers what it promises. The problem lies with what it promises. We first meet James Howlett/Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) as a sickly young boy in the mid 1800s. A confusing tragedy involving illegitimate parentage leaves the boy alone in the world with only his half-brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) along for the adventure – an adventure that crosses centuries and many wars. As the credits roll, we see the two with their war-faces on, fighting in the American Civil War, the trenches of WW1 and the Normandy beaches of D-Day in its sequel. It appears they sat out the Korean War, but they're back in action in Vietnam. By this point, Victor has lost all vestiges of his humanity. Working as part of a black-ops team led by the devious Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston), Logan becomes disgusted by the atrocities they are asked to perform. He walks away, leaving his bloodthirsty brother to carry out the devil's will. Six years later, another tragedy shatters Logan's peaceful life, and Stryker comes calling again, offering to help him get vengeance by making him more powerful with the aid of an experimental process that will bond impenetrable adamantium to his skeleton. Logan becomes Wolverine and learns that he is just one of many victims of Stryker's crusade against the mutant race.
Director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition) does a competent enough job of staging the action, but the film's stubbornly linear and episodic script requires more sleight of hand than he is able to muster. With a narrative that keeps starting and stopping, the filmmaker has to trick the audience into thinking that it's always moving forward. There are many ways to do this, from linking the episodes together with stronger transitions to director Christopher Nolan's approach in Batman Begins of fracturing the time element to create a relentless, forward drive, building up to the moment Bruce Wayne finally "becomes" Batman. In this film, Hood just follows the black-and-white lines of his script, and what we get is a pokey pace that leaves too much time for us to think about the plot's logic, of which there is very little. Not that there is more logic in any of the other films, but their different approach shines a light on the problems here.
Not counting the sleep-inducing third film of the franchise, the previous X-Men films did a pretty good job of balancing backstory with comic-book action. Director Bryan Singer seemed to have a good handle on creating the impression of existential character arcs without actually spending precious screen time explaining it. The X-Men were outcasts, and you could fill in the race/gender/sexual orientation of your choice to understand the not-so-deep subtext. This was good, because individually the characters were paper thin. Think about what you know about Scott Summers from just watching the films, and then ask yourself if you really care to know more.
The problem with X-Men Origins: Wolverine lies with the very notion of making a film only about Wolverine. How much do you really want to know about this enigmatic character? Isn't the mystery key to his appeal? Singer used him in his two films as a kind of special effect of characterization. Wolverine would emerge from the shadows, do something awesome, and then look mournful. As the center of the story, he is somewhat less engaging. Watching Wolverine work his day job as a logger is like watching a star baseball player at home gardening. It's not what we came to see. He becomes even less interesting the more we learn about him, and the film's attempts to fill us in on his past are both too vague ("Wait, who was his father?") and tediously specific ("Oh, so that's where he got his leather jacket!"). X-Men Origins: Wolverine comes to standard DVD in a nearly bare-bones edition. This is becoming common practice among the studios, who are trying to promote the extra material only available in their Blu-Ray editions. Which doesn't help those of us without a Blu-Ray player. So, what we get is basically one of those econo-DVDs found in the bins of a Wal-Mart: a flimsy box that wouldn't protect the DVD from a short fall and two very negligible extras. The first, "Wolverine Unleashed: The Complete Origins" is your standard behind-the-scenes studio press piece in which we learn that Hugh Jackman can indeed work out more than most men when preparing for a role. The second is a PSA against smoking. Really. And it doesn't even feature Wolverine teaching kids to stop smoking and stay in school. Trailers for Night at the Museum 2, I Love You, Beth Cooper, and Dollhouse: Season One account for everything else on the disc. Just watch the movie.
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