Monday 30 May 2011

From the archive: "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

Is there a duller phrase in contemporary moviespeak than "origin story"? These are two words that speak of a deep-rooted pedantry within the comic-book fraternity: the exhilaration of these latter-day folk tales surely lies in what their constituent superheroes could do - their extraordinary potential - rather than in what they've already done; these cynical-minded cash-ins, literally backward-looking entertainments, serve merely to plug a gap in some very specialist knowledge, to patch a hole in the universal anorak. For those who really need to know such things, the first in a planned series of X-Men Origins, Wolverine at least explains why Hugh Jackman's hirsute action man John Logan appears so bloody grumpy all the time. You'd be stroppy, too, if you found yourself obliged to serve a tour of duty on every battleground from Gettysberg to Omaha Beach, alongside an unruly brother (Liev Schreiber) who shows every sign of going over to the darkside.

I feel increasingly sorry for Jackman. No matter his heroics elsewhere - trouping his way through the Oscar ceremony, reanimating Nicole Kidman in Baz Luhrmann's Australia - he's destined to go down in movie history for growing Alvin Stardust sideburns and strapping on a pair of (here, ropily virtual) adamantium talons. In what's supposed to be his own vehicle, Wolverine is outshone, particularly in the early stages, by more vivid turns from Lost's Dominic Monaghan as a psychokineticist who comes to a sad end in a trailer full of old toys, and Ryan Reynolds as a swordsman so gifted he can slice bullets in two even as they're heading towards him. There's also the rare sight of Schreiber enjoying himself for Jackman to contend with, while I suspect a few fanboy Y-fronts will be moistened at the arrival of card-sharp Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) around the midpoint.

Any sense of drama isn't helped by the fact that, as in previous instalments, there are so many diverse and varied superpowers on display - an X-Man for all seasons, if you will. Every conceivable foreign and domestic eventuality is covered: having survived Vietnam without a scratch, Logan's most pressing concern becomes the quantity of bedlinen he nightly shreds. Since we know chief villain Danny Huston will grow up to become chief villain Brian Cox in X2, the pay-off has to be deferred (or referred) elsewhere. Arriving a week ahead of the no less back-to-basics Star Trek, Wolverine is clearly intended as the opening blast of the summer blockbuster season, and yet it's never more than functionally spectacular, moving us from point A to point B in the universe of X. Early on, Schreiber is asked to describe the sensation of having a firing squad's bullets bounce off his genetically modified frame. For all Wolverine's heavy artillery, his response rather sums up the whole: "It tickled."

(April 2009)

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