Chief Justice Michael Stailey claims he was hit by a mutant freight train with a big ol' X on the front.
Our review of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, published October 5th, 2009, is also available.
With 35 years of experience, you'd think we'd have learned not to count out Wolverine. Despite the disaster that was Brett Ratner and Zak Penn's X-Men: The Last Stand, a handful of writers dismantling and reassembling David Benioff's original script, ongoing productions problems, and a workprint leaked to the internet, X-Men Origins: Wolverine blew the doors off the early summer box office and pulled in more than $360 million by the time it left. If you look hard enough, there's plenty not to like about the film, and yet you cannot deny the passion Hugh Jackman has for this character is what makes it work.
Facts of the Case
Witnessing the murder of his father at the hands of the family's drunken groundskeeper, sickly young James Howlett manifests his mutant abilities with horrific results. Realizing his newly emerged bone claws have exacted revenge on his true biological father, Jimmy fleas in uncontrollable rage, shame, and fear of what he's become. On the run with his best friend and half-brother Victor—whose dealing with a mutant manifestation of his own—we fast forward through the next 150 years, as the two fight alongside each other through the world's most devastating military conflicts. But when Victor's growing bloodlust finds the slowly-aging brothers facing death by firing squad, it becomes obvious there's more to these mutants than even they realized. Enter Col. William Stryker, former evangelical preacher turned military black ops ringleader. It seems he's putting together a group of highly specialized mercenaries and would love to their skills to the mix. Not that they have any choice. It doesn't take long, however, for Logan (having adopted the surname of his dead father) to realize their mission objectives are far from honorable and he bolts, setting off a chain of events that will ultimately lead to the creation of the X-Man we know today as Wolverine.
There doesn't seem to be a lot of middle ground with this film. The first blockbuster out of the Summer 2009 gate, it hit hard and it hit fast. People enjoyed it or hated it. Put me in the first camp, with a handful of caveats.
Superheroes are the cinematic property du jour and every studio is hot to fast track these films. Fox struck gold with X2: X-Men United, one of, if not the finest comic book film to date. Of course they're going to bleed the property dry. X3 was an unmitigated train wreck and very few people—the public and insiders alike—had any faith that Wolverine would prove any different. What they didn't count on was the hands-on role producer Hugh Jackman would take in bringing this film to life. He's responsible for the hiring of South African director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) and the casting of Liev Schreiber as Victor/Sabertooth. He lead by example, adhering to an unbelievable personal fitness regime, and performing more than 95% of his own stunts. And he set the tone by personally ensuring the set maintained a family atmosphere, where—despite their insane shooting schedule—everyone had a good time. A rarity for any A-list actor.
But one man, even a superman, cannot a blockbuster make. The passion Jackman had for this project obviously rubbed off on Gavin Hood. Despite taking liberties with characters and canon, his commitment to this film is palpable in the commentary and every interview clip you can find. He took production limitations and used them to their advantage (exceptional practical effects supported by more green screen work than you might realize), helped assemble an exceptional cast—which included Danny Huston (Stryker), Taylor Kitsch (Gambit), Kevin Durand (Blob), Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool), Will.i.am (Wraith), Daniel Henney (Agent Zero), and Dominic Monaghan (Bolt), and delivered a popcorn picture that holds up surprisingly well on multiple viewings.
Of course, the ensemble has a great deal to do with that. Jackman and Schreiber (friends in real life) light up the screen as two of Marvel Comics' most bitter rivals. I could watch these two play cat and mouse all day long, whether it be verbal sparring or all-out cage match beat downs. The great by-product of this is watching everyone around them raise their game. Danny Huston has huge shoes to fill in playing a younger version of Bryan Cox's Stryker in X2, but does so with malicious glee. Daniel Henney (the American-born, South Korean soap opera star) is also pitch perfect as Zero. But here is where available screen time for a crowded cast gets tricky. Taylor, Ryan, Kevin, Will, and Dominic all have nice moments, but it's not enough to establish their characters as anything more than glorified cameos. Despite an extended monologue, even Lynn Collins as Logan's love interest, Kayla Silverfox (in a bastardization of the original character), gets shortchanged, forced to look pretty and speak less. And let's not even talk about the army of young mutants who pour out of The Island's covert research facility in the final act. In short, the supporting cast generates more noise than it provides any real character development, effectively serving as human props to the larger Logan/Victor story.
Which brings us to the script. Ugh. It's never easy to condense 35 years of stories into one cohesive origin tale, let alone for a character whose past is more fragmented and conflicting than a presidential candidate's campaign finance record. You will hear stories and see evidence of different avenues the story could have taken throughout the bonus materials, and I have to say Gavin—alongside X-Men franchise producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winters—made some tough yet respectable choices. But this isn't a genius script, by any stretch of the imagination. When the best story exposition takes place during an opening title sequence montage with no dialogue or voiceover narration, you know you have problems. What surprised me is that, even with the convoluted story structure, we still manange to get from Point A to Point B in a rather enjoyable manner. Moments like Logan at the farm house (the occupants of which may very well be the parents of Alpha Flight leader James MacDonald Hudson aka Guardian), the bar brawl between Logan and Victor, Victor's stalking of Kayla, the sparring match between Logan and Fred, the intro of Gambit, the helicopter take down, and the Adamantium bonding process all leave lasting impressions. Unfortunately, you just don't come away from Wolverine with any sense of fulfillment. It's more like a hangover, the lasting vestiges of a great night, what you can remember of it.
While not reference material, the Blu-ray transfer is very good. Where it falls apart is the visual effects department. Believe me, I have nothing but respect for the work of Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff, and their Amalgamated Dynamics team, but damn do Wolverine's Adamantium claws look ridiculous. In watching the film in the theatre, I was sure it was bad CGI, and yet it turns out we see more of the practical hand pieces. The bone claws look good, Kevin's muscle and fat suits for Fred Dukes look amazing, and yet any time those claws show up I cringe. The other place you'll notice it are the CGI mattes. Some are near seamless (the barn explosion), but there are a handful over the top longshots that scream "cheesy" (the Island destruction). That said, the color palate and separation, the night shots, and the set detail all come through with tremendous clarity. The same holds true for the audio. Just warn the neighbors when you fire this baby up, because the action set pieces are going to rattle the walls, thump the floor, and put you right in the middle of the action with this DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix. As for the music, Harry Gregson Williams' score is respectable but not entirely memorable. In that respect, it fits the film just fine and uses the sound field to the best of its ability.
Now for the bonus materials and there's quite a bit to choose from:
Commentary with director Gavin Hood
Commentary with producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winters
Alternate / Deleted Scenes with optional Gavin Hood commentary (10
› X Connect—Director Gavin Hood and producer Lauren Shuler Donner pop in and out to anecdotally tie together their film with the first three X-Men pictures. Be warned, you're going to get that deja vu feeling, if you watched the featurettes first (or vice versa).
› Director's Chair—More discussion and behind-the-scenes footage analysis with director Gavin Hood. Basically, it's sporadic video commentary.
› Pre-Visualing Wolverine—Storyboard and pre-vis overlays on select action scenes.
› X Facts—What you'd expect: cutesy pop-up facts to "enhance" your experience. Such gems as "Every Friday night during production, Hugh Jackman would buy lottery tickets for the crew. To the best of our knowledge, no one ever won."
Weapon X: Mutant Files (54 min)
› Sabertooth—Liev, "When you make eye contact with a big game cat that's caught in a zoo, behind bars…when you lock eyes with it, and it tells you that it can't get you now, but if it could, you would be hamburger in a matter of seconds…that's a powerful look. To me, that inspired a lot of the motivation behind Sabertooth." Gavin had the idea that Victor would run on all fours, as a powerful big cat would. It took a lot of effort to achieve, but the effect is intense.
› Stryker—Uses intelligence and psychology to deflect and manipulate the frightening power of his charges. Gavin consciously chose to play up the evangelical origins of the character to justify his actions.
› Wraith—Quiet, intense charisma of Will.i.am won him the role. The character is an Americanized variation on Nightcrawler, whose power destructs and receates his body from the cellular level. Use the frame advance to see it in full glory. Will took his inspiration from YouTube videos based on the keyword badass. Hugh, "His approach to acting was really inspiring. To him, this is a new art form. To him, it was something to learn and he was probably the most enthusiastic person I've ever seen on set. He never went back to his trailer. He was always there, always learning. He was a natural."
› Silverfox—The one link Logan thought he had to a normal life. So much for that idea. Lynn, "It's a thin line between her power and female persuasion." They wanted to add this layer of "Do I love her because she used her power on me, or are these feelngs real?" to juice the drama.
› Blob—Taking the ridiculous comic relief of the original Fred Dukes and giving him a frightening intensity. The fat suit weighed 90 lbs and had a built-in cooling system, which Kevin was a good sport about.
› Bolt—Quiet, small, and young, his manipulation of electricity is fairly sad and lonely. It's a glorified cameo but serves to escalate the evolution of Victor.
› Gambit—The second most enigmatic X-family member next to Wolverine. Channeling his kinetic energy manipulation as a conduit for his emotion can be dangerous. Did a lot of work with the hybrid-Chinese Bo-Staff and threw himself into that training. Also did his own wire work.
› Agent Zero—New character, sort of Bullseye meets SHIELD minus the mental instability. Hugh, "Daniel is the Brad Pitt of Korea. After this movie, you're going to start seeing him all over the place."
› Deadpool—This is early Wade, before the cancer and the insanity. It's a great setup, but the story choices sort of implode at the end. Hugh could not keep a straight face through all Ryan's ad libs. Gavin, "We were looking for this mutant that would come through as more powerful than Wolverine. Yes, we deliberately took Deadpool and gave him certain attributes that have never been seen in the comics. Good! We hope we surprised you a little." Ryan's stunt double Scott Atkins did all the fight choreography at the end without wires.
› Emma Frost—Take the White Queen, give her telepathic abilities to Silverfox, leave behind her secondary mutation, and you get Emma the Diamond Girl. Whatever. She looks ridiculous, as if diamonds are drawn like magnets onto her body, rather than her skin transforming into invulnerable glass.
The Roots of Wolverine: A Conversation with Len Wein and Stan Lee (17
Wolverine Unleashed: The Complete Origins (12 min)
Fox Movie Channel covers the Tempe, AZ premiere (7 min)
Thrill of the Chase: The Helicopter Sequence (6 min)
There's plenty of source material to mine, should Jackman and Fox pursue a sequel—Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's 1982 Wolverine limited series, detailing Logan's time in Japan with Mariko Yashida; The Madripoor years, in which Logan (as Patch) owned and operated the Princess Bar, a hot spot for gangster and globetrotting mutant activity; and the Alpha Flight years, just to name a few. As long as they don't screw the pooch like they did with Deadpool here, painting themselves into a corner and scrambling for a panicked escape, it has a good chance of succeeding. Why? Because as long as Hugh Jackman is involved, you're more than halfway there. In the meantime, sell your copy of X-Men: The Last Stand and use the money to purchase X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Blu-ray).
Shut it, bub. This one walks.
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