You may recall reading a couple of weeks ago about an incomplete work print of X-Men Origins: Wolverine that was leaked online. Star Hugh Jackman reportedly reacted by saying he was “heartbroken,” a response in stark contrast to the emotional gravitas of his character in the movie – a stony-hearted, ill-tempered mutant with a skeleton made of indestructible metal, complete with retractable claws that jut out from behind his knuckles.
Jackman’s outcry came from a man well accustomed to overacting; since the original X-Men movie blitzed worldwide box office in 2000 he has made a handsome career of it. If you need inflated emotions delivered earnest-to-goodness with grand histrionic flair and not a trace of knowingness or self-conscious performance Jackman is your man, a fair dinkum middle-of-the-road movie star who seems to have drifted in from an older, simpler time, where a man always opened the door for a lady and never wore a hat inside.
There is a moment in Wolverine that would have been oddly prophetic had the movie come out a couple of years ago. The scene is set in a barn as a benevolent farmer looks at Jackman with soft, soulful eyes and says “you look like a man fixin’ to do a bad thing.” He’s right, but the prophecy came too late. The bad thing was called Baz Luhrmann’s Australia.
The previous X-Men films were set in the not-too-distant future, but this one encompasses flashbacks that span 150 years. After growing into an adult Logan aka Wolverine (Jackman) doesn’t seem to be affected by the ageing process. He remains in stagnant, perfectly manicured manhood; if Hugh Jackman ever decided to get cryogenically frozen, those amorous abs scream out that now is the perfect time to do it.
The crux of the story sprouts from a hero/villain dynamic between Logan and his brother Victor aka Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber), which begins when they are young scallywags with dark secrets. Director Gavin Hood moves quickly into an arresting opening credits sequence reminiscent of the faux historical superhero montage in Watchmen, with Logan and Victor breathlessly depicted fighting in the American Civil War, WWI, WWII and Vietnam.
Years later they’re working for the man in Team X, a black ops unit comprised of other mutants and led by government bad guy Stryker (Danny Huston). Logan takes a moral objection to the team’s violent undertakings and quits life as a mutant, starting afresh as a lumberjack – a smart storytelling move given any character that sets off to work brandishing an axe and a cut lunch is well within Jackman’s range. An accountant or university professor, not so much.
Logan lives with his girlfriend in a cabin on a prairie, which, amusingly, is situated about two metres from the edge of a massive cliff face, and he resides here peacefully and free of vertigo until the day his brother comes to visit. When Victor slashes apart Logan’s love interest, well, this time it’s extra-personal. Logan grudgingly seeks the collaboration of Stryker, the Frankenstein of the story who, as you do, arranges to have Logan’s skeleton bonded to an impenetrable metal alloy called adamantium.
Logan awakes from his operation naked, grumpy and in need of a hearty breakfast, but finds none and furiously busts out of the place. Stryker immediately decides to have him located and destroyed, despite his announcements moments prior that his adamantium–infused patient is now ‘indestructible.’ This is about the point in the story at which those who don’t want a bar of any of this goofy superhero stuff will begin taking deep breaths and sighing loudly, though they won’t be heard over the sound of gunfire, explosions, the zwick! zwam! zwack! noises mutants apparently make when fighting each other and the occasional bursts of Jackman looking up to the heavens and howling like a wolf. Again, well within his range.
Wolverine is clearly take it or leave it popcorn entertainment, ripe for intellectual condemnation. Pushing aside criteria that doesn’t apply to this movie – realism, nuanced performances, thematic depth, anything that doesn’t vaguely resemble mayhem and so forth – X-Men Origins: Wolverine does a fine job doing what it ought to: entertain. Hood’s one valid claim to anything remotely resembling good art is the movie’s beautifully judged pace, which sustains rollicking momentum from beginning to end, the script and Hood’s direction identifying just when to dart between set pieces and locations and the right times to introduce new characters or reintroduce old ones. There isn’t a dead minute in it, even if many of effects-laden scenes feel – as is the case in many comic book adaptations – like they are simply going through the rounds.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a sleek repackaging of comic book conventions and a movie that breezily cruises along a steady plateau – no great highs, no great lows. The downside of not having any bumps in the road is the risk the journey runs of feeling bland, which here is particularly the case in retrospect. Moment by moment, however, Wolverine doesn’t allow its audience much time to concentrate on its deficiencies, and that’s either a deftly implemented sleight or simply the only good choice available for another superhero flick short on new ideas.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine’s Australian theatrical release date: 29 April 2009