FILM REVIEW: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

12A • 107 mins • 29 April

Director: Gavin Hood

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston

Rating:

X-Men Origins: Wolverine proves a more memorable scandal than a screen experience.

A notorious leaked workprint turned it into a poster child for torrent culture, a Hollywood flashpoint that coincided with the takedown of Pirate Bay and ensured a level of media chatter that this middling, auto-piloted piece of superhero cinema could never have won on its own.

It plays the voguish prequel card, of course, and is clearly a stab at resurrecting Fox’s tentpole franchise after Brett Ratner’s dreary X3 murdered the mutant cash cow. But while Bond, Batman and Star Trek profited from a Year Zero makeover, Wolverine restores no such energy to the dwindling X-universe – indeed, its aura of imaginative bankruptcy actively saps it, making this more dead end than new dawn.

There’s a flutter of promise in the first reel. We see Wolverine on a black-ops mission in Lagos, a dank, dark jungle locale that delivers an invigorating new environment for this kind of fare. There’s bristling macho interplay and genuine wit and for a brief, shining moment you’re convinced this will play like a parahuman take on The Dirty Dozen. No such joy. We’re soon mired in a predictable tale of revenge, an escalating series of empty tragedies occurring to half-sketched characters that ultimately packs all the emotional resonance of a night on the Xbox.

Technically, it’s debatable as to whether this even qualifies as a Wolverine solo movie. The criminally clumsy title anchors it to the established Marvel franchise while the poster explicitly positions him as a team player, flanked by mutant co-stars. Liev Schreiber brings weapons-grade charisma to the talon-fingered Sabretooth (a strange retro-fit with the shaggy wrestler we saw in Bryan Singer’s X-Men) but the shameless parade of such four-colour faves as Gambit, Deadpool, Cyclops, the Blob and Emma Frost feel like sops to the fanboy faithful, an insurance policy to woo the geek vote. Shame they feel like shadows of their comic book counterparts.

And who, precisely, is Hugh Jackman playing? It’s certainly not the bruising, hellraising runt of the comic books. Scarily ripped he may be, but there’s an inescapable leading man quality to Jackman, a hint of Barbara Cartland and Broadway that’s at odds with the essential rogue spirit of Wolverine. They camouflaged this in the X-movies by granting him all the snarky comebacks. Here he’s burdened with the straight man gig, and for all his muscles and snarl he seems fundamentally decent, even Eagle Scoutish (there’s an odd interlude with a Ma and Pa Kent styled couple that adds a wildly inappropriate echo of the Superman origin myth). Berserker rage be damned – you can easily imagine him fretting over whether he should take the last pink wafer on the plate.

Arthouse helmer Gavin Hood summons some moments of beauty from his New Zealand palette but comes unstuck with the superheroics. The film has an underbudgeted vibe – from the sets to Wolverine’s woeful claw FX – and there’s a perfunctory feel to the combat set-pieces, including a climax atop the nuclear towers of Three Mile Island. Mix with trite, declamatory dialogue and Hood’s tendency to reach for a vapid visual and you have an aching mess of superficial bad-assery.

Ironically, there’s a glimpse of a truly great Wolverine movie tucked away in the title sequence. A Watchmen-styled montage showcases the claw-slashing immortal in tumbling decades of global warfare, battling from the trenches of the Great War to the beaches of Normandy to the hell of ‘Nam. It’s coiled, brutal, stylish, thrilling – and ultimately an almighty pricktease of adventures you’d rather be watching.

Nick Setchfield