Saturday, May 02, 2009

Zaki's Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

It took about forty minutes into the latest installment in Fox's increasingly irrelevant X-Men movie franchise for me to realize that I was done. I was done with action sequences where wires yank characters this way and that without a care for known laws of physics. I was done with poor CGI work dropped on top of poor bluescreen work. I was done with faux "tough guy" dialogue that was cliched even when it was brand new. I was done, done, done.

If the goal of this movie was to beat me into submission, then congratulations, Fox. You win.

I went into my screening of X-Men Origins: Wolverine feeling pretty confident that, come what may, it would be difficult to match X-Men: The Last Stand in beat-for-beat badness. Yet lo and behold, two hours of watch-checking and eye-rolling later, I'm hard-pressed to divine which of the two is worse. Given the choice between having to watch either The Last Stand or Origins once again, I think I'd rather go read a book.

This is a movie that exists in its own peculiar timewarp, as if over the course of the past year we didn't have Iron Man or The Dark Knight or even Watchmen pointing the way towards everything the comic book movie can be. Worse, it finishes the job its immediate predecessor began by tearing down the last pieces of edifice director Bryan Singer began building with his two X-opuses in '00 and '03.

Pity poor Hugh Jackman, who emotes, tenses, pounds, and bounds as if the entire endeavor is perched Atlas-like atop his impossibly-muscled shoulders. It's an effort that's at once superhuman and utterly futile.

Starting in 1840s Canada (about three decades before Canada was founded, whoops), Wolverine begins with sickly child James Howlett who, in one really bad night, finds his kindly father murdered, learns said kindly father isn't actually his father, learns the killer of said not-father is actually his father, sprouts three bony claws from each of his hands, then kills said actual father. After this, the newly-revealed mutant takes off for parts unknown along with his feral half-brother Victor Creed.

From there we launch into a title sequence that lets us know young James grows into Hugh Jackman and young Victor into Liev Schreiber. As they blaze a bloody trail of guns, gore, and bodies through nearly every major western conflagration from then until the 1970s, Victor (eventually the baddie Sabretooth) is increasingly beholden to his bloodlust, while James (eventually you-know-who) is increasingly disgusted by it. This montage, with its clever cutting and transitioning across different eras, is pretty much where "new" and "innovative" begin and end as far as this movie is concerned.

The rest of the film is a jumble of disparate plot elements involving the conscience stricken Logan (yet another alias adopted without explanation by the titular hero) trying to find solitude away from his life as a trained government assassin, finding fleeting love with a beautiful schoolteacher (Lynn Collins), and ultimately drawn into a government conspiracy that stretches outward to encompass Col. William Stryker (last played by Brian Cox in X2, this time by Danny Huston), and seemingly every character in Marvel's X-verse in some tangential fashion or another. Before the credits roll, Logan has become the metal-boned, razor-clawed amnesiac we met nine summers ago when the Merry Mutant Movie Cavalcade first started.

Of course, that was back when it all sort of meant something. The X-Men series as a metaphor for isolation and oppression was one that Singer adroitly embraced while also delivering the expected blockbuster heroics. Whether you like or dislike what Singer accomplished in his two films, there's no question that he gave his interpretation of this universe a distinct stylistic and thematic focus, and one that was of a piece with the funnybooks from whence the whole thing sprang. That focus had already been diluted by Brett Ratner's noisy, noisome trilogy-closer before we even got to this point, but what's sad about this prequel project, intended no doubt to launch a fresh new onslaught of sequels, spin-offs, etc., is how every hint of artistic integrity has been squeezed out of it like a used up lemon slice.

There isn't one genuine moment in this movie. Not one. Every emotional beat, every witty rejoinder, every action sequence, and every special effect is something you've seen done before and done better. The effects work in particular is embarrassingly shoddy, especially for a project whose budget easily dwarves its predecessors. The movie is littered with seemingly-unfinished effects sequences and obvious visual shortcuts, as if the effects team cut its losses halfway through the render process.

The staggering sameness of the proceedings is made all the more exasperating when one considers the genuine talents involved in putting the film together. Director Gavin Hood has shown himself to possess a unique and sensitive style previously with projects such as Tsotsi and Rendition, so his hiring (at Jackman's behest) was cause for initial optimism that there'd be a little bit more to look forward to than the usual cocktail of CGI and pyrotechnics.

As for the man himself, Jackman has owned this role completely since the first time he strapped the ginsu knives to his knuckles, and his work here reinforces why. Jackman's intensity and immersion in the character go a long way toward massaging us through some of the more hackneyed "macho man" stuff. Not to mention, he's backed up by a supporting cast, including the aforementioned Schreiber,, and Ryan Reynolds (for all of five minutes), that is uniformly good. So, what happened?

Simple elimination leads us to Fox honcho Tom Rothman, who has spent the past decade steamrolling over the studio's franchise library, and whose "F___ the fans. We already have their money" motto is maddeningly borne out by this weekend's boffo box office numbers. Nonetheless, a big opening weekend can't disguise the fact that this is a product of the Hollywood assembly line in the worst way. It's made expressly as an antidote to introspection, analysis, or anything that gets in the way of another wire-fu stunt or senses-deadening boom.

This isn't even about fidelity to the source, as that went out the window last time around. But even so, the original comics are used as a handy crib sheet when convenient, and tossed aside with similar expedience. Whether it's Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), Emma Frost (Tahnya Tozzi), or a certain bald pated professorial type floating in and out of the story, characters, names, and situations are plucked out of an ongoing tapestry spanning some forty-plus years and inserted haphazardly into the plot with the all the care and forethought of an alcohol-induced game of spin-the-bottle.

Wolverine is arguably one of the most complex characters in the X-Men stable, and his fan-favorite status coupled with his byzantine fictional biography made a solo spotlight an easy sell. Yet the overpowering, omnipresent hand of Fox management has systematically scraped away the humor that made him so charismatic, and the enigmatic past that made him so appealing. With all mysteries laid bare by movie's end, we're left wondering what all the fuss was about. How disappointing for Jackman, who deserved a better showcase for his character than this catastrophe (though, granted, he also deserves some of the blame here in his role as producer).

The broader question however, is that of what we should expect from our blockbusters. When the X-Men franchise began in 2000, it was a clarion call to take the genre more seriously than its ghettoized origins would previously have allowed. By treating its subject matter with respect and attempting to be about something, X-Men launched a veritable golden age of comic book adaptations that has continued unabated nearly a decade later, and is in no danger of dying out any time soon.

Cut to the present, and all the fourth entry in this tired, tired series shows is just how far away from the original mission statement they've strayed. In Wolverine we have the hoary stereotype of Hollywood excess brought to mindless, somnambulant life: vacant, inconsequential pablum that's forgotten before it's even finished. Stick a claw in this one. C-


omar a. said...

I didn't get the usual post-movie text from you so i came here...outch! Brutal review...that sucks that it sucked..

chad said...

well said.

Ray Nowosielski said...

But what did you really think?

Anonymous said...

Well :) I didn't have the desire to see this movie (or even the third that i didn't see yet).
That's even more so now. :)

Stephane Garrelie.

Asim said...

I agree completely with your review, Zaki, except I'd take mercy and give this one a C+. I don't have the keen, discerning eye for the acuity and professionalism of the special effects that you do. What did you think of Brian Singer's Superman? Will there be a sequel? said...

I went to a pre-screening of this movie and it was ok. I expected more theatrics and graphics. But if you are an X-men fan, you should definitely go see it.