LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Origin stories are one way to jump-start stalled movie franchises as Christopher Nolan has brilliantly done with two "Batman" movies and J.J. Abrams has apparently managed with the upcoming "Star Trek."
The scheme fizzles badly, though, in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," in which Fox has selected the popular Wolverine character -- and that of energetic entertainer Hugh Jackman, his interpreter -- as the headliner to revive its mutant-race series that showed signs of wear and tear with 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand." A new director, Gavin Hood, and new writers, David Benioff and Skip Woods, put in overtime to develop plot twists and double crosses but ultimately fall back on a surfeit of action and visual effects to mask a lack of imagination.
Worldwide anticipation guarantees a massive opening that befits its event status. But unless word-of-mouth is strongly favorable, global sales might fall short of the nearly $460 million grossed by the last film in the series. Ancillary business looks strong.
The story seems to take place roughly following the Vietnam War, with its origins back in the early 19th century. That's when Logan/Wolverine and Victor/Sabretooth learn that they are brothers -- and have a mutation making each a feral hunting and killing machine. Watching each other's backside, the two fight through the Civil War, two World Wars and Vietnam before finding themselves laboring as mercenaries in East Africa under the duplicitous Stryker, played by Brian Cox in "X2" but now portrayed by Danny Huston.
Then the two develop an acute sense of amnesia, an apparently infectious disease as it leads to many of the story's betrayals. The two simply forget they are brothers. Logan (Jackman) walks away in the middle of a bloodbath, angering Victor (Liev Schreiber) to the point that he sets out to track Logan down and kill him.
Six years later, Logan is a lumberjack in a remote Canadian forest, though the film never clarifies whether becoming Canadian represents another mutation. His bucolic existence with schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins) is interrupted first by Stryker, seeking to re-recruit Logan, then his brother seeking to kill him but settling for the schoolteacher instead.
Vowing to avenge her murder, Logan allows Stryker to perform a Dr. Frankenstein procedure on him that turns him into Weapon X -- no idea is given what Weapons I through IX were like -- which is an indestructible killing machine. Amnesia again strikes as Stryker, upset that this new Weapon is not obeying his command, orders its immediate destruction. But it's indestructible!
So Stryker and various mutant commandos pursue Logan or Wolverine or Weapon X while he pursues Victor or Sabretooth. Then other mutants turn up to take shots at each other. The whole thing winds up on Three Mile Island, the scene of America's first nuclear disaster and a perfect site for this mutant showdown. And, yes, the story plays just as dumb as it sounds.
Beyond the illogic and amnesia, there is a genuine question as to how many mutants any sci-fi movie can contain. Guys show up doing card tricks, controlling electricity and growing obscenely obese. You need an awfully big circus tent to hold all these freaks. Oh, by the way, Weapon XI puts in an appearance too, one that threatens to continue into "X5" -- or perhaps it will be "X-Men XI."
Hood is tapped to call "action" this outing, ostensibly because his 2005 foreign-language Oscar winner "Tsotsi" was about someone not comfortable with his own nature. But there is very little soul-searching in "Wolverine" -- almost none, in fact, as Jackman is constantly in motion and constantly shirtless, with a scowl above his bearded jawline being as close to deep thought as the movie goes. So a fine, sensitive director is more or less wasted in this action movie.
Digital effects are top-notch but too many. They become a crutch when scenes don't work and characters are inconsistent. Harry Gregson-Williams' score drives the movie faster and faster, while editors Nicolas De Toth and Megan Gill cut scenes with scissors sharper than Wolverine's steel talons. Everything gets scarified on the altar of speed. You hardly get any chance to take the measure of any mutant, least of all Wolverine.
Editing by Dean Gooodman at Reuters