Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" passes the all-important summer movie "Soylent Green Test." What do we ask of our cinema gods from May to September? The same thing Edward G. Robinson's Sol Roth wanted at the end of his life, nothing taxing, nothing challenging - just a pleasant, easy on the eyes diversion from our punishing everyday reality. It's summer dammit, and the living's s'posed to be easy. A celluloid fine line must be walked between insuring we're never bored and not forcing us to think. And so, just like the melodic, faraway *ting* of a baseball hit off an aluminum bat, "Wolverine" hits that summer sweet spot.

Unlike "The Dark Knight," which used allegory and theme to richen its story and characters, the first two X-Men movies (haven't seen 3) were unduly burdened by political subtext. At no time did either achieve the most important moment in a superhero film - at no time did they soar. It's not hard to figure out why. How do you accomplish lift-off weighed down by a blinding nuance which won't allow an all-out rumble between good and evil? "Wolverine" never soars either, but it's not a superhero film, it's a genre flick; a satisfying, old-fashioned revenger, a B-movie whose characters just happen to possess extraordinary powers.

The story opens just before the Civil War, introducing us to Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Victor (a well-cast Liev Schreiber) as young brothers forced to come to terms with who and what they are. A nifty credit sequence, not unlike "Watchmen's," quickly takes us through their lives and the development of their relationship until we land somewhere around 1970 where both are mixed up in a secret and elite U.S. Military hit squad made up of other mutants and commanded by the oily General Stryker (Danny Houston).

A particularly ugly mission involving the killing of innocent civilians ends up being too much for Logan and he decides he's had enough. But Victor (now Sabretooth) has shred much of his humanity over the decades, enjoys him some killing and feels he's finally found a place for his mutant self among his own kind. For reasons that never fully make sense, this tension results in the brothers becoming mortal enemies.

In Canada, Logan builds himself a new life working as a lumberjack. He lives in a beautiful mountain home no lumberjack not living in a movie could ever afford and has found true love with Kayla Silverfox (the quite fetching Lynn Collins), his tender, understanding, live-in girlfriend.

What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, I could've done without the old trope of the "sinister" military and really could've done without the arch-villain's wildly out-of-place Dr. Evil speech about the necessity of "pre-emptive war" (I thought Obama told everyone to look forward?), but remove the superpowers and special effects and "Wolverine" is the same movie Charles Bronson made a dozen times between 1972 and 1987. And that's a compliment.

The story's lean, simple and thankfully, unlike its predecessors, more concerned with pacing than moralizing. The special effects are a little cheesy, but that only heightens the winning lack of ambition which is the film's strongest element. Best of all, the action scenes don't have you reaching for the Dramamine nor do they numb you with blazing overkill. The unholy shaky-cam is nowhere to be seen and the three or four set-pieces are choreographed and shot in a way that allows you to follow them.

If you worry as I do about origin stories that get bogged down in those layers of mythology that so please Those-Who-Have-Never-Felt-The-Touch-Of-A-Woman, no worries here, which is why the fanboy crowd might be disappointed. The introduction of new mutants and a younger version of an old favorite might help, but the story surrounding what made Wolverine Wolverine is refreshingly straight-forward and simple.

Emotionally the relationships never really connect, especially the central one between Wolverine and Sabretooth. The demands of the plot drive these characters when it should be the other way around. The need for an action scene or a "surprising" turn of events seems to change their relationship dynamic on a dime which makes it impossible to grasp or to invest in it. Logan's relationship with Kayla is only a little better, but his connection with an elderly farm couple is the strongest element in the film but also the shortest.

This is Jackman's fourth tour as Logan, the mutant who will be Wolverine, and he's as good as I've seen him. The most important aspect of a movie star is clear-eyed confidence and an ease in your own skin. Jackman's performance is effortless in that respect and shows no sign of the self-consciousness I've seen in his other work. Hopefully this will translate beyond the "X-Men" franchise.

"Wolverine" satisfies and works because it respects what it is and never pretends otherwise. Good actors and plenty of action expertly paced over 107 minutes with no aspirations beyond holding our attention.

So far, this is my kind of summer.


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