Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Film review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston
Country: USA

“I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do isn’t very nice.” – Wolverine

The Wolverine of the X-Men Origins isn’t exactly the charismatically cantankerous anti-hero that always made the character so popular. He’s still a pretty tough bastard and can offer up feral snarls when the occasion demands, but he’s a generally bit more of a pussycat here, equipped with wisecracks that veer much closer to 80s action kiss offs when he's not crying and dashes of farce that reek of lazy comedy. But this isn’t Gavin Hood’s biggest problem; the very nature of this prequel means an end to the mystery of this enigmatic character’s history, and it’s for this reason in part that Wolverine is ultimately a largely underwhelming film.

Whatever ways Wolverine’s backstory has been told before I’m told it’s never been particularly satisfying, how could it though? Like the smoke monster in Lost, the less I see the more I’m fascinated. And so in that sense this movie was always going to be a big ask unless it was really nailed it in terms of character, but in the absence of that kind of depth the only other direction to go in is the big budget action flick route which Hood has blithely pursued with the watchful eyes of Fox peering over his shoulder and no doubt second guessing the film’s direction at every stage of production.

We know that it’s possible to make a great comic book movie that focuses on a single compelling character, just see The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan), Spider-man 2 (Sam Raimi) and I would add Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan) into that mix. But instead of taking a few leafs out of the pages of these films, Hood and the screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods (brought on to revise the script) merely copied their playbook from the existing X-Men movies and Heroes when this should have been a much more personal film. Instead they’ve gone Epic, rammed as many Colourful Characters into the 107-minute runtime as possible and diluted any moments of interesting personal development by punctuating them with some sort of explosion. It doesn’t take long to realise that this film is about as deep as a your average hipster.

There are many things to say about this, let's begin with the fact that clearly David Benioff is not cut out for writing action movies, first Troy and now Wolverine. Look the writing here is not terrible, but it is frequently poor, filled with exposition and clunky one-liners. That for a start just lowers the tone of everything to the point at which it felt like I was watching melodrama with family intrigue, revenge plots and a puke-inducing love story that wasn’t remotely believable. There’s a moment where were learn where Wolverine picked up his name from and I realised I was daydreaming about something completely different so meandering is the dialogue in the scene.

What’s disappointing about this is that Benioff can really write. I’m a big fan of 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002), which I’d recommend to anyone, and The Kite Runner was another excellent adaptation. Both films are small, personal dramas and I can’t understand why Benioff hasn’t or hasn’t been allowed to bring these sorts of credentials to Wolverine, it would surely have been suited to the concept of an intense character study. From Skip Woods, the man behind Hitman and Swordfish this is a far less surprising outcome. I would be very curious to see what kind of stages of development this film has undergone, where the cuts have been made and if it’s been dumbed down along the way.

So what have we got? Well, we meet young Logan/Wolverine and his brother (possibly half brother, it’s not exactly clear) Victor Creed/Sabretooth and the two flee home together after Logan murders a man with his newly discovered claws. This is the year 1845 and over the film’s credit sequence we see the two brothers fighting together in the Civil War, the trenches of World War I, on the beach of Normandy, and in Vietnam. Sabretooth shares similar powers of healing to Wolverine and so the two pretty much run amok in what is a highly stylised but erudite piece of storytelling where we see Wolverine’s distaste for killing and his brother’s growing addiction to carnage.

Their unique talents are discovered by William Stryker (Danny Huston) who recruits the pair into his mutant dirty dozen, complete with: Dominic Monaghan doing his best Matt Parkman; some guy called Zero who has escaped from Equilibrium; Ryan Reynold’s Deadpool aka, same schtick as Blade Trinity minus the beard; Will.i.am (as John Wraith) channeling Jesse Ventura’s Blain from Predator but with teleportation skills, and finally Kevin Durand (as The Blob) who’ll later be a fat joke stolen from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. And we still haven’t met Logan’s girlfriend or Gambit yet who each get a few minutes to take the limelight away from our main man.

Wolverine eventually abandons the mutant gang and his brother in pursuit of the quiet life making an honest living as a logger, chewing his cigars, sleeping in a wood cabin with his girl Kayla (Lynn Collins) and having nightmares about the wars. He can’t escape his past though and is soon tracked down by Stryker with news that someone’s killing his old crew and that he should probably think about getting his bones bonded with adamantium – the rest as they say is history.

While the action comes at regular intervals picking up the audience from the get go and briskly dashing through the narrative, the only set piece that wowed was a pretty thrilling takedown of a room filled with semi-automatics by Deadpool. Otherwise I really found the action sequences poorly devised on the whole, lacking a spacial awareness that left the editing feeling frantic to the point of confusion. Many of the fights reminded me of the opening chase in Quantum Of Solace, which boils down to a lack of experience and a non-instinctive eye for action.

Then there were the special effects, which for a movie that will have cost in excess of $100 million were a big disappointment. Within confined spaces of studio stunt work the production values were excellent and the fight involving the woefully underused Gambit (Taylor Kitsch not quite nailing the Cajun accent, perhaps they should’ve gone with Josh Holloway) looks great. Any fights between Wolverine and Sabretooth have an anti-climatic feel, mostly just the same two big blokes stabbing each other with their claws and spouting sibling rivalry taunts. No, it’s when the actions gets out in the open and requires some green screen work that the effects fall apart. In fact it’s odd because I can’t remember seeing another big budget film that looked so poor since maybe the kite surfing of glacial tidal waves incident in Die Another Day.

By the final act the movie has gotten somewhat tiresome as yet another a fight between guys who are all invincible so long as they can keep their heads as Deadpool returns as the film's end of level baddie. It barely warrants much talking about at this stage because it’s all the same problems repeated, poor action editing, sub-par effects and character’s who haven’t been drawn out in any meaningful way. And I should also add that the constant score throughout the entire film (it felt at least) was the most gnawingly annoying soundtrack I’ve heard in a while with every note telling me how I should feel, think and react at any given moment. Totally over the top and unnecessary.

Jackman is the cog in this malfunctioning machine of a movie that just barely holds it all together. When he’s having fun as Wolverine, you’re having fun watching him – it’s just a shame he’s given no meat to work with here. But this is the Wolverine movie they chose to make and in a sense it is successful in being a largely vacuous popcorn comic book blockbuster that not going to set the world alight, but keep this franchise ticking over and the dollars rolling in. What it does do is demonstrate the complete lack of ambition or imagination currently at work in the Fox production rooms. Whatever you say about Watchmen you can’t argue with how utterly daring Warner Bros was with such a valued property. Then here we have Wolverine, easily the most fascinating character of the Marvel universe wasted by turning his origin story into a Die Hard In A Comic Book Movie, complete with white singlet.

If you’ve ever watched J.J. Abrams' talk at TED about the magic box then let me just say that this is exactly what he was talking about. Wolverine is a fascinating character precisely because his history is a mystery. Feed us bits here and there sure, but I just don’t think stripping the character down like this serves any purpose. And to be honest in the process the filmmakers have criminally failed to explore his character in the lead up to his amnesia in any thought-provoking or insightful way. One minute he’s a child, the next he’s a fully formed adult with his principles and beliefs already in place, and quite frankly he’s a goody-two shoes. Instead of the Who, we got the What, Where and When. The Why should be important, but it is reduced to little more than a plot device.

Wolverine is a decent enough film, it’s certainly not a bad one and is much better than the abomination that was X3: The Last Stand. But I can’t bring myself to recommend it to you because films should be better than this and they should aspire to more, especially ones that carry the precious cargo that is character rarities like Wolverine. Sure he’s cool and tough enough to carry a mindless action movie like this one, but he’s also smart and complex enough to warrant a closer look at what really lies beneath that adamantium shell.

Scott Henderson

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is released in cinemas 30 April


Luke Buckmaster said...

I think the more you think about this movie, the worse it gets, but moment by moment I found it quite entertaining.

Some good points here. I would say that I think Unbreakable had two compelling characters, and it's good you mentioned it since I think the film is under-recognised. That last scene in particular is celluloid gold. "They call me Mr. Glass.."

Scott Henderson said...

Unbreakable is one of my favourite films and I did kinda hesitate as I wrote that singular character focus point. I guess you could go further and argue that both The Dark Knight and Spider-man 2 benefit from a compelling counterpart to the hero in The Joker and Dock Ock.

So it begs the questions of why more wasn't done with Sabretooth, and I thought Schreiber showed he had, pardon me, the chops for it. Instead it was just some angsty sentiment followed by a scrap.

When I sat down to review it I had intended to give it a more reasonable review and you're right the movie was entertaining generally. But you know I got more disappointed the more I wrote, then it was 3am and time for bed!

Matt Riviera said...

When Gavin Hood made the overrated Oscar-winner Tsotsi,I wrote: "Tsotsi could have been a good film. The story is tightly structured, the acting slightly over-the-top but convincing, the photography is gorgeous and the kwaito soundtrack fresh and invigorating. Yet it almost feels as if director Gavin Hood had his sights set on Hollywood and chose instead to make a popular film."

Critics fell over themselves singing the praises of this South African filmmaker whose main ambition, it turns out, was to direct a derivative superhero spin-off. Via Rendition.

How anyone could've had any expectations re: Wolverine is beyond me. This is a good review. But 1,700 words is a lot of type for a bad film which meets its low expectations and doesn't exactly need extra publicity...

Scott Henderson said...

Too true, but you know when you've got words appearing freely on the white piece of paper sometimes it feels good to just let them go. My expectations we low going into this film and the fact that I still felt underwhelmed speaks enough volumes really. My cry of foul is really at the reckless waste of a character deserving of better treatment.

I must confess to having missed Tsotsi (I caught the excellent Hotel Rwanda around the same time) but on the evidence of this film and your comment Matt I would now like to go back to revisit that film. Did you see Rendition and what were your thoughts on that film?

Unknown said...

Reading your review makes me feel torn. I agree with Luke: moment by moment I found the film really entertaining, but yes, upon reflection, not so much.

I also agree that this film should have aspired to be more, but disagree that Wolverine's origins ought to have been left alone. (Let sleeping dogs lie. Ahh that's a bad joke!).

I really appreciated your thoughts on the screenwriters, and can only imagine what sort of studio notes they were receiving. But I do think Wolverine's story could have been a kick-arse, epic (in a good way), deep and dark character study.

I just wish the studio had the balls to make it. Instead, I had to laugh at your Die Hard line! I almost wrote the same thing in my review.

Despite the fact that the film should have had higher aspirations, I'm happy to recommend a popcorn movie. Vacuous or no. Sometimes popcorn is just what the doctor ordered.

Nomad said...

I wonder if Hugh (Huge) Jackman will be able to be anything but Wolverine now that so much of his career has been consumed by this role