May 3, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine [12A]

Dir: Gavin Hood
Prequels have an inherent problem, in that they are devoid of surprise. Any audience going to see X-Men Origins: Wolverine is going to know where it ends up.  Sadly, the journey to that point is more often annoying, creating continuity problems in the later films, than it is exciting. I rewatched the X-Men trilogy before going to see this film, and I was going to review all three of the earlier films here as well, but since they can all be summed up quite easily with the words ‘Good idea, flawed execution’ I think I’ll spare you the other 3000 or so I might otherwise have written and move right on to Wolverine.

Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), both character and movie, is a strange beast. Gavin Hood clearly wants to go to a dark emotional place with this movie, as evidenced by the fact that the event that triggers Logan into putting himself into the Weapon X programme is the murder of his wife, by his half brother Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber). Unfortunately this approach is completely defeated by the several hundred characters that jostle for screentime, a terrible, clunky, screenplay and some of the worst realised action scenes in some long time.

We begin in the 1840’s with a young Jimmy Logan discovering his bone claws in a fit of rage then, in a deeply confusing and entirely pointless moment, killing his own father. Logan and his brother then fight their way through the popular American wars of the late 1800’s, up to Vietnam (including the Civil war, which is odd, because the brothers are Canadian), before being recruited by one Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston) to a team of mutant mercenaries. Wolverine has a crisis of conscience and moves back to Canada.  There he falls in love with a schoolteacher (Lynn Collins) and becomes a lumberjack, until Stryker reappears to ask for his help stopping the killings of their old team.

So much happens in this movie, and yet so little either makes one iota of sense or has any weight or excitement to it whatsoever.  The overwhelming feeling is one of Gavin Hood ticking off moments and characters, without having any real sense of why they are there, other than to make fans say ‘look, Gambit’. At times we get hints of the deep dark movie that Hood and original screenwriter David Benioff may have envisioned making, particularly in the scene that has Logan discovering the body of his murdered wife.  The problem is that these moments are all immediately underscored by hackneyed, obvious, and comic book like choices, such as the several times that Wolverine looks to the sky and melodramatically bellows “Noooooo”, an action that suits him about as well as it did Darth Vader.

Indeed there seems to have been a lot of confusion about how to depict Wolverine here.  The sardonic anti-hero of the X-Men trilogy is gone, and with him the moral ambiguity, which made you think that at anytime in the first two X-Men films he might have gone to fight with Magneto. All the character seems to have gone out of Wolverine, to be replaced with thicker sideburns and moping. At times Hood and Jackman try to depict Wolverine deep in thought, reflecting on his wife’s death. Those scenes ring false though, because the movie spends so little time on that relationship that we get no real sense of it.  It also seems false because we’ve got no real sense of Wolverine in this movie, and so his emotions are essentially meaningless.

Given that the story revolves around, or appears to revolve around, someone hunting down Wolverine’s old team it should have been simple to generate a sense of urgency, but there’s none. The film has no drive, no rhythm, no subtle gear changes; it’s either in neutral or going 100 miles an hour. This quickly becomes very boring, and leads to the overwhelming sense of script meetings where the conversation went “We haven’t had an action scene for 15 minutes”. “But we don’t need one there”. “Write one anyway”.

The same thinking applies to the insane amount of characters that are crammed into this movie, none of whom have enough time to develop any sort of character. Ryan Reynolds is a fine case in point as Deadpool.  He’s effortlessly entertaining in his 10 minutes on screen, but then vanishes so completely that when his character re-appears he is played by a mute stuntman. It’s clear that Benioff and Hood just don’t know what to do with their multitude of characters.  Another case in point is fan-fave Gambit, who looks and sounds so little like his comic and cartoon counterpart that fans will be upset and annoyed rather than thrilled by his appearance. There’s one utterly pointless scene for The Blob (whose make up is embarrassingly immobile), and a hideously charisma free debut for the Black Eyed Peas Will. I. Am as John Wraith; an impoverished man’s Nightcrawler.

The stupid just keeps on coming though, most notably in an abysmal scene, hilariously badly played by the bland Lynn Collins, which reveals how Wolverine gets his alias, and in the appearance of a young Cyclops, which would make his character about 40 in the original X-Men (just one of many, many ways this movie fails to tie up with that one).

Of course little of this should matter, because at the end of the day all Wolverine really needs to be to be on some level successful is a decent action film. Whoops. Gavin Hood’s previous films, the overrated Tsotsi and the entirely average and extremely heavy-handed Rendition don’t suggest that there’s an action director inside him, waiting to get out, and Wolverine absolutely confirms that there isn’t. The action scenes are a nightmare, a confusingly cut, boringly choreographed and impact free set of deeply unconvincing images that never manage to get the blood pumping at all.

Even if they were better choreographed though the action scenes would still be laughable, because the effects employed to realise them are so unspeakably poor. Wolverine’s claws are especially embarrassing, the CGI looks like it is several texture and lighting passes from being complete, and they appear to be floating somewhere in the vicinity of his hand, rather than attached to it. The larger scale effects are not much better, looking for all the world like someone decided to use a programme a generation back from the one employed on X-Men to make them, but those are more difficult, the claws though, amateurs could do that right, and professionals certainly should have. At a basic level this film isn’t finished, and releasing it like that is inexcusable.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine doesn’t work, it’s a big, loud, stupid movie that barely holds together.  However, there is one real positive to take away from Wolverine, and that’s Liev Schrieber. Schreiber is a proper actor, one who tends to be a high point of anything he’s involved in, and I was puzzled when I heard he was taking on this role. He’s got exactly the same awful dialogue as everyone else, and he drifts in and out of the movie at weird intervals, but whenever he’s on screen the film becomes instantly more compelling.  Schreiber attempts to give every single moment, however dumb, weight and reality. He largely succeeds too, giving Sabretooth a genuinely feral feel, but also bringing an intellect to the part (which makes the fact that in X-Men the character turns into a mute Tyler Mane pretty inexplicable). If the rest of the people involved in Wolverine had treated it with such respect it really could have been good.  What a shame.

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