The second-coolest thing about Wolverine of the X-Men movies — after Hugh Jackman's epic sideburns — was his mystery. So naturally, that's what Marvel set out to delete with its first X-Men prequel.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine might be a perfectly adequate superhero comic-book movie — all explosions, chases, gunfights, sword fights and blood feuds. There's even a little humor. But that irritable loner who shows up on a snowy road without a memory, with a past we can only guess at, in X-Men? That dude is explained away as we get 150 years of history in this movie about the mutant's early life, his first killing, the reasons Sabretooth becomes his nemesis.
In a brisk opening, director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) trots out the sickly boy James, who learns his supersecret from his half-brother, Victor. They take their "gifts" to the battlefields of the Civil War, both World Wars and the Vietnam War. That's where Victor (Liev Schreiber, bad-eyed and bloody) finally snaps. A village massacre brings the brothers to the attention of Stryker, played in the prequel by Danny Huston.
The brothers join an elite team of mutant killers (Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, Black-Eyed Peas singer-turned-actor will.i.am as John Wraith/Kestrel, Dominic Monaghan as Bolt and Daniel Henney as Agent Zero among them) and run up the body count until James has had enough. The brother with the conscience disappears and takes on a new life and a girlfriend, Kayla (Lynn Collins), until the old life sucks him back in.
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But Logan, as he is now called, has the worst case of night terrors ever. And when he wakes up, screaming at the sky (he does this a lot), his lady love has to say, "Looks like we're going to need new sheets again, babe."
Wolverine is about Logan getting that new animal moniker, about the Weapon X program and the beginning of the military program to hunt and capture mutants.
Mainly, however, it's about how cool Jackman looks with his new metal claws, how buff he is with his shirt off (and with his shorts off, in a couple of scenes). The chases are exciting in a conventional motorcycle versus helicopter sort of way. The repetitive brawls always involve Wolverine and somebody else, often Sabretooth, as Victor has become known, bellowing and running at each other.
And the finale? There are two endings, Fox tells us, damage control after the movie was leaked onto the Internet a month ago.
Often when a filmmaker who has shown a talent for character, story and suspense is co-opted to make a Hollywood comic-book film, the comic book devours the director. That is pretty much the case here with the South African Hood, who manages some grace notes but still made a movie that's short on heart and heavy-handed, much like the Ang Lee-directed Hulk a few years back. The set pieces, especially toward the end, are more amusing than awe-inspiring.
But Jackman is cool in the role, and Schreiber makes a worthy (if bizarrely sadistic) foe. Too bad Marvel pummeled the mystery out of them both.