Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

As the summer movie season sets off from the port, we see this year’s first test of sea legs in Fox’s actioner X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And while it does bring us some big summer action, it also falls victim to some wild inconsistency.
By  · Published on April 30th, 2009

If there has been one thing that has plagued the comic book movie genre, it is inconsistency. Ask any die hard fan and they can quickly list for you the ones that worked — Iron Man, The Dark Knight, X-Men — right along with the ones that didn’t work — X-Men 3, Superman Returns, Daredevil. And with each of the movies that failed, there seems to be a variety of different failings. Some movies aren’t true to their comic roots, others get the tone wrong and still others just “jump the shark” completely, as some fans might call it. But with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, we seem to have a completely different beast on our hands. It is a movie so up and down that you might need to take a bit of Dramamine before entering the theater, a movie with such inconsistency that it feels as if World War 3 broke out in the writers’ room (or for that matter, the editing room). But still, it is a movie that delivers some sensational action beats, a few great performances and an experience overall that will play well with some demographics — and really well with others.

The story — which comes with its own set of problems — follows the life of Logan, otherwise known as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as he and his older brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) come to grips with their mutant powers. The opening sequence shows their early lives as they fight in a series of American wars stemming from the Civil War to the conflict in Vietnam. After an incident leaves them jailed, they are rescued by Colonel William Stryker (Danny Huston), who makes them part of an elite team of mercenaries with special powers. Of course this elite team of special people — which includes the fast talking and thoroughly entertaining Ryan Reynolds as super swordsman Wade Wilson and the criminally underused Dominic Monaghan as Chris Bradley — isn’t exactly what it seems. Instead of helping people, these mutant mercs are doing the bidding of what Logan comes to find is a deranged Colonel who would have them mow down innocent humans to get what he wants. Fed up with being a monster, Logan flees to seclusion in the Canadian wilderness. Six years later he is forced to once again face his rival brother Victor and a devious plot of Stryker, ever the puppet master. And after Victor kills the woman that Logan loves, it is time for the beast, the Wolverine, to track down the men who have wronged him and, well, cut their damn heads off.

What follows is a series of inconsistent, but oft entertaining action sequences stitched together with a copious amounts of man-meat money shots of Hugh Jackman giving us the ole flex ‘n growl. Then again, the shirtless Jackman flexing and preparing to spring on his prey is probably one of the things that works best for the movie. In fact, if there is any one movie that will cross the gender lines and be a big hit with the ladies, this is it. Add to that an incredibly solid performance from Liev Schreiber, one of the film’s few shining stars. As Victor Creed — also known as Sabertooth — Schreiber delivers a nasty, grisly performance playing perfect bad guy to Jackman’s tortured hero. Victor is mean, nasty and if I may say so while maintaining my heterosexuality, a sexy man. He’s the sort of bad boy that, when his powers combine with Hugh Jackman’s moments of nudity could leave very few dry seats in the house. And I’m not talking about comic book geeks here, ladies.

Speaking of no dry seats, there are a few other characters that come to life well on-screen and a few that don’t. Yet again, we find highs and lows. On the low side we have, easily the film’s weakest link. His delivery is stiff, exactly what you’d expect from a hip-hop star playing actor, leaving his character John Wrait — a man who can transport for one place to another — a hollow shell of what comic fans might expect. On the other side we have Taylor Kitsch, who works very well as the smooth-talking, kinetically charged Gambit. He gets some of the best action in the movie and is yet another character that plays well with the film’s female-friendly aesthetic.

Yet while Wolverine is going to play in spades with any warm-blooded gal whose heart goes pitter-patter when Hugh Jackman loses his shirt, there is another demographic out there that will be served quite well. That of the die hard action junkie, he who craves explosions, mayhem and lines like “I’m going to cut your goddamn head off.” There is plenty of that. Of course, it does all come at a price. Wolverine is a movie that falls into a classic action trap, abandoning story and character in order to manufacture action beats. There are several action sequences that are fun to watch, but also seem very arbitrary in the context of the story. Furthermore, it doesn’t help that the visual effects seem painfully inconsistent. At one moment we are watching wide-eyed as Wade Wilson deflects bullets from 8 gunmen without a scratch, a scene that is executed brilliantly. And at another moment we are watching Wolverine simply ride a motorcycle through the woods, a scene that brings to mind the stone age effects of old Saturday Night Live skits that involved a car chase — you know the ones, where the car isn’t moving but the background is. These moments take the audience out of the movie, causing some to forget the brilliant effects-driven scenes they had seen just moments before. What is odd is that some of the most breathtaking and complex shots are the ones they get right — it seems to be the easy stuff that goes awry.

But even with these visual effects problems and a story is patched together at best, Wolverine does enough right to be entertaining. Its success can be mostly attributed to its leading men — Jackman, Schreiber and Huston — whose performances transcend an otherwise thin story and bring weight to otherwise cheesy dialogue. That, and the action that does work is extremely cool. On the whole, the film seems to be lacking on one big area: consistency of vision. I can’t for the life of me imagine that this is the exact film director Gavin Hood had in his mind going into the project. And I think the same goes for star Hugh Jackman, whose love for this character is well documented. And while I hold tight to the notion that it is entertaining enough — and probably even good enough to entertain the masses and make some buku bucks at the box office — that doesn’t exactly make it a great movie. If you want to see a great comic book movie with a clear, consistent vision from a filmmaker in control of his property, go re-watch Iron Man. If you’re out for a good time this weekend, and you’re simply yearning for some sweet on-screen action, then Wolverine will do the trick just fine.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)