Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Seldom does Hollywood produce a comic book prequel as potent and perfect as “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (**** out of ****), a no-holds-barred barrage of CGI visual effects, and brawny brain-dead, derring-do that will overwhelm you with its sheer extravagance in less than 120 minutes—actually a trim 107 minutes. “Tsotsi” director Gavin Hood and savvy scenarists David Benioff of “Troy” and Skip Woods of “Swordfish” shove enough testosterone into this larger-than-life spectacle to fuel an entire franchise. After the anemic as well as dismal closure that Brett Ratner’s “X-Men: Last Stand” provided the “X-Men” trilogy, “X-Men: Wolverine” brings you back to life like a shot of adrenalin to the heart. Reprising the role that make him a household name, a mutton-chopped Hugh Jackman wields the razor-sharp knuckle knives that he deploys like a Cuisinart in the original “X-Men” to slash and gash anybody and anything that gets in his way. Like any really good prequel, “Wolverine” brings the action full-circle so that we learn how Professor Charles Xavier wound up with many of the wards that he supervises in director Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” (2000). Mind you, “Wolverine” lacks the subtlety that distinguished the first two “X-Men” movies, but this prequel makes up for it with high-octane, slam-bang, edge-of-your-seat, action sequences that make your blood pump.

Essentially, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is a melodrama about two mutants that traces their origins back to Canada's Northwest Territory in the year 1845. As the two half brothers, James Logan (Hugh Jackman of “Australia”) and his older, more unstable semi-sibling Victor Creed (Live Schreiber of “Scream”) flee from their family in Canada and seek refuge south in America after Logan kills the man that he believes is his father. Hood and his scribes spend more time probing the back story of the highly conflicted Logan from his turbulent childhood to his tragic romance with a school teacher. Nevertheless, every episode of Logan’s life entwines with that of his unruly brother who suffers from anger management issues. Yes, eventually, Victor will become known as ‘Sabretooth,’ but for now he is just Victor. The credit sequence depicts our pugnacious pair--Logan and Victor--displaying their extraordinary strength, nimble dexterity and protean ability to regenerate no matter how devastating their wounds as they wade through the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam. Logan exerts more control over his bestial nature, while Victor wallows in his blood lust for death and violence, even when it prompts him to turn on his own men.

In Vietnam, Victor plunges off the deep end. He murders innocent Vietnamese civilians as well as American G.I.s. The Army slaps both Logan and him in front of a firing squad. Of course, these indestructible killing machines cannot die from ordinary bullets. They survive the firing squad’s fusillade but find themselves chained up again until General William Stryker (a nefarious Danny Huston of “The Aviator” at his oiliest) persuades them to be "part of a special team with special privileges.” (Incidentally, Brian Cox played an older Stryker in “X-Men 2.”) This black-bag, covert operations unit called Team X consists of fellow mutants, including Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds of “Blade: Trinity”), Agent Zero (Eurasian newcomer Daniel Henney), Wraith (novice Will.i.Am), Fred J. Dukes/The Blob (Kevin Durand of “Smokin’ Aces”) and Bradley (Dominic Monaghan of TV’s “Lost”) and resembles a mutant “Magnificent Seven.” For the record, Wade Wilson is a wizard with a sword. Agent Zero handles pistols like a gunman from a John Woo shoot-up with Chow Yun-Fat. For example, after he empties both magazines in his automatic pistols, he drops the clips, sends his sidearms somersaulting into the air like Wild Bill Hickok, snatches two fresh clips from his belt, and jams them into the grips as the guns fall spinning into his fists. Wraith specializes in teleporting. He’s somewhere one second and another place a second later. Bradley handles electricity like a conjurer.

During a bloodbath of a massacre in Nigeria, Logan quits Team X and masquerades back home in Canada as a ordinary, everyday lumberjack who has settled down with a luscious schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) with has a knack for getting people to do what she wants, including muscle-bound Logan. Meanwhile, Logan wants nothing to do with his angry half-brother, but the bond between Logan and Victor proves to be stronger than even they imagined. Moreover, Victor isn’t content to let Logan skip out on him and he sets out to track him down with predictable results that forces Logan to confront his bestial nature on grounds that he cannot control. The treacherous Stryker lures Logan back to his laboratory and convinces him to participate in his highly hush-hush program Weapon X and Logan is reborn as Wolverine with an impenetrable alloy known as adamantium that makes him indestructible. Raving like the usual mad scientist, Stryker informs everybody about how he is going to create an army of these killers, but he forgets that Logan can hear him. Logan succumbs to his beastly nature, transforms into Wolverine, bursts out of the tank, and takes off.

Director Gavin Hood attracted praise for his first effort “Tsotsi,” a formidable drama set in South Africa about a teenage hoodlum who discovered an infant and shielded it from the elements. Hood’s second movie “Rendition” with Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal withered, but “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” finds Hood back in top form. Hood stages several incredible as well as outrageous combat sequences between not only Wolverine and Victor but also Wolverine and other antagonists. The violence is the stuff of far-out fantasy with no relation to anything realistic. Hood manages to juggle multiple characters with ease so that we’re never confused about who is trying to smackdown whom. Marvel Comic’s purists may quibble about the liberties that Hood and his writers take with the source material, but “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” qualifies as a first-rate, old-fashioned smackdown that will keep you rooting for the hero through thick and thin.

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