Movie Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

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Much as I went into The Fellowship of the Ring caring more about Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen than I ever could about JRR Tolkien, my interest in X-Men Origins: Wolverine stems from the involvement of Gavin Hood and Hugh Jackman, and not from the legacy of X-Men comic books. Having said that, I rather liked Singer’s X-Men, loved X2 and probably thought more of The Last Stand than most people, so I do have a context in which I have invested in Wolverine-slash-Logan before.

Have Gavin Hood and his collaborators fashioned a film that can make me invest again, or dare I hope it, even make me invest more?

The opening scene kept me guessing as to how successful the film would ultimately be. It serves as a super-quick introduction to Logan’s rage and guilt, which are given as some kind of inner drive for him and visualised in the form of a howling motif we will see again and again. In the sequence, we see James Logan as a young child in the 19th Century, sharing a bedroom with his brother, later to become Vincent Creed and be played by Liev Schreiber (the separate surnames issue is not entirely clear, but I’m sure you will make an educated guess as to how it might be resolved). A man who appears to be their father rouses the children before another man arrives and violence erupts. The events of this brief, fairly well presented and mostly exciting sequence are designed to provide some depth and motivation to the characters, and particularly in respect of the two brothers’ relationship, but it could honestly have benefited from running longer, opening out more and allowing a more meaningful relationship to form between the children and the adults. Nonetheless, what the scene does achieve would be greatly missed had the scene been skipped.

On the subject of the cast, I think it is worth noting that Schreiber and Danny Huston offer more in terms of a general cool factor and credibility than on a scene by scene basis with their performances – the film isn’t really structured in such a way that they have to do any heavy lifting with their characters.

Subsequent to this comes another sequence that strives very sincerely to establish the complexities of the film’s central sibling rivalry. Set into the titles, and stylized to play half like a flowing motion picture, half like a set of title cards, this sequence is a montage of wars, with the chronological presentation of Logan and Creed fighting, growing, changing and interrelating through a string of historic conflicts. There is likely to be some comparison made between this sequence and the opening titles of Watchmen. Both skip through time, both provide tone, context and some establishing character information and both are pretty successful – though this is likely to receive less enduring love from fans, devoid as it is of pop music, pop iconography or popping stylization.

Indeed, by this point, the film seems to be building quickly towards and ever elaborate drama between the two brothers. It’s an arc that continues to sweep through most of the film, only occasionally getting knotted or falling off desperately. It wouldn’t be hard to have issues with how the brothers’ relationship changes through the last act – but, as you’ll see, it isn’t hard to have any number of issues with the last act in any way.

A better structure would have allowed the first half of the film to expand and become more elaborate until it took up at least 85% of the narrative. This is where the most interesting stuff lies, and the stuff that could stand to be fleshed out considerably. The further past the halfway mark we go, while there are still many things to enjoy and appreciate, the higher the stack of problems rises.

The film runs for a good time (my best guess is twenty minutes) before any material surfaces from the draft of the script I had previously read and, frankly, despised. Much of the business from that iteration to survive to the screen has been changed so much, either by context or through the tweaking of crucial details, that most of my misgivings about the screenplay no longer apply. Sadly, there is plenty of new material that has faults of its own. The easy assumption is that much of this new material needs what the old material got – a good, thoughtful rewrite or three. I’d be interested to know who contributed to the screenplay other than the credited David Benioff and Skip Woods, and quite what they brought to the pages.

There are a small handful of interesting lines of dialogue that belong in the same school as the best of X-Men or X2, expressing a political or social observation rooted in the whole mutant metaphor, or in Wolverine’s character and worldview.

Gavin Hood definitely has an eye for a cool, crisp and often geometric or symmetrical image. His collaboration with Donald McAlpine here has yielded probably the most ‘natural’ looking of all of his films, for better and for worse. Some scenes do suffer from slightly confused coverage and assembly. Some of these speed bumps in the screen geography can be accounted for by Hood’s propensity to film a fair amount of his material in compositions staged with the actors either in parallel to the screen or perpendicular to it. These right-angled shot selections are not the easiest to mesh, particularly with eye line matches. Overall, though, Hood stages a good number of scenes wonderfully and the film always recovers quite quickly from its visual missteps.

There’s a large number of compositions that present some popular and well known “claw poses”, and I dare say each of them will raise the heartbeat of fans a little. I found them fun, and was also impressed at how organically each was arrived at in the flow of the staging.

There’s a clear ambition here to make a film that has depth and subtlety, and enough moments when this comes to the screen for me to recommend the film.  It stands alongside Iron Man, at the very least, as a superhero star vehicle that digs beneath surface for as long as it can, until – in both cases, unfortunately – the tunnel pretty much collapses.

I haven’t been trawling message boards and forums for reviews of the leaked workprint, but I am surprised to have not come across one particular observation somewhere. Wolverine seems to be set up to seed the First Class film, and may even be introducing us to a number of that project’s cast. One CG-assisted cameo from a stalwart of the X-Men series is like so many of the other good things in the film: fun enough, definitely interesting, but in need of more context, more breathing space and more set-up.

With more confidence on the part of whoever was reining this film in (Tom Rothman, most would assume), Wolverine could have ranked very easily amongst the best of the comic book superhero adaptations. As it is, Jackman and Hood get to walk away with their dignity intact and no tarnishes on their reputations, but also without fully realizing the smarts-and-heart tentpole they so clearly wanted to deliver.

6.5/10

Oh, and…

…for those of you patient enough to hang about after the credits you will see a little button scene and I can confirm, yes, indeed, the one I saw wasn’t the one I’d read about elsewhere so there does seem to be more than one in circulation.

[Editor's Note: Don't read if you don't want to know what happens]

In mine, Logan was sitting in a bar in Japan – yep, go crazy!! now – and speaking to the barmaid, in subtitled Japanese. She asks if he is drinking to forget, he tells her that he’s drinking to remember. If the rumors are right and this scene was indeed filmed just last week, it certainly didn’t seem rushed and was nicely set dressed, lit and (as far as one can tell from a couple of cuts) edited.

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