Friday, May 1, 2009

Wolverine: Feral fun

Wolverine (2009) • View trailer for Wolverine
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for considerable action violence and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.1.09
Buy DVD: Wolverine • Buy Blu-Ray: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Two-Disc Edition + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Some films have teeth. This one has claws.

Whether by design or sheer luck, the X-Men films have been among the more successful of their genre, in terms of the delicate balance between telling a solid dramatic story and providing the explosive action demanded by longtime fans of these comic book characters. While perhaps not as lofty and psychologically layered as The Dark Knight or Spider-Man 2, the X-Men entries have been leagues above disappointing misfires such as Daredevil and both Fantastic Four efforts.
Having emerged unscathed after death by firing squad -- that mutant "healing
factor," donchaknow -- Victor (Liev Schreiber, left) and Logan (Hugh Jackman,
center) entertain a somewhat sinister but nonetheless inviting offer made by
Col. Stryker (Danny Huston), who we're certain is up to no good. Whatever
the result, it'll be bad news for Logan.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine, while rather predictable, is no exception.

Fueled both by Gavin Hood's muscular direction and an all-stops-out performance from star Hugh Jackman, Wolverine establishes a credible back-story for one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Comics universe. Scripters David Benioff and Skip Woods conform to essential comic book details while adding some reasonable grace notes of their own, and wrap up the title character's considerable angst with generous helpings of snarling ass-whupping.

His silly name and wildly improbable powers notwithstanding, Wolverine has long been one of Marvel's great tragic figures, right up there with Bruce Banner and the Hulk. As a result, fans will not be surprised to discover that Wolverine's origins involve plenty of grim tidings.

Hood displays his directorial chops right out of the gate, with a stylish prologue that economically illustrates Wolverine's 19th century background and reveals the man's ageless qualities during a montage that places him in the fury of first the Civil War, then World Wars I and II, and finally even action in Vietnam. His value as a soldier is obvious; aside from his great strength and primal fury, Logan  as he is known in civilian life  possesses a "healing factor" that makes him all but indestructible.

Logan does not make this unusual journey alone; he lives through the ages with older brother Victor (Liev Schreiber), born with all the same superheroic talents.

Albeit with a slight difference: Logan has claws of bone that erupt from between his knuckles, whereas Victor's fingernails can lengthen into equally lethal claws. Both men tend to lose themselves to blood-lust.

But as the decades pass, Logan somehow retains and even reinforces his hold on humanity, and remains protective of innocent civilians. Victor, in great contrast, grows to enjoy killing for its own sake, and becomes ever more like the feral beast  Sabretooth  that becomes his nickname.

Following an incident during the Vietnam campaign, Logan and Victor wind up in prison; they're rescued by Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston, wonderfully, wickedly condescending), who makes them part of an elite team of similarly hyper-powered men. Some  such as Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand), better known as The Blob  will be familiar to comic book fans; they can be expected to survive the events of this film.

Others  Bolt (Dominic Monaghan) and Wraith (Will i Am)  are new to this story, and therefore as potentially expendable as the "red shirts" in TV's original Star Trek series.

Although initially believing that he's part of a special-ops crew achieving noble results, however questionable the methods, Logan soon questions Stryker's motivations. Finally disgusted, Logan abandons the group ... and, with his departure, Victor's emergence as a psychopath accelerates.

Much as he'd prefer to seek solace as a lumberjack in the Canadian wilderness, though, Logan should have realized that one cannot simply walk away from such a life. Victor's still out there, and we know that Stryker is up to no good.

The film's second and third acts therefore take on a positively grim Shakespearean quality, which should come as no surprise to those who recall Hood's 2005 film, Tsotsi, which won a well-deserved Academy Award for best foreign film.

Yes, of course this is all stuff and nonsense, but we buy it in great part because of the passion Jackman brings to his performance. There's absolutely nothing superficial about his work here; he's equally persuasive as an avatar of violent fury or during Logan's quieter, introspective moments.

And while it isn't exactly in Logan's nature to crack wise in the manner of James Bond, Jackman nonetheless lightens the mood with his rising contempt for authority  as personified by Stryker  or his frequent snarky baiting of the colonel's obedient right-hand mutant, Agent Zero (Daniel Henney, appropriately smug).

At the same time, Jackman is given plenty of opportunity to display the romantic charm that makes women swoon the world over ... and yes, this film grants the actor plenty of opportunities to take off his shirt (and, in one memorable sequence, everything else). Logan's romantic idyll with Kayla (Lynn Collins), a schoolteacher who shares his cabin and life in Canada, is surprisingly tender.

Schreiber is equally credible as the bloodthirsty Victor: the dark yin to Logan's increasingly virtuous yang. Benioff and Woods' story repeatedly centers around the fractured but always essential bond between these two brothers, and the degree to which it drives both men. When, at a violently climactic moment, Victor unexpectedly rescues Logan while growling "Nobody gets to kill you but me," we're perfectly willing to believe it.

Geeks who get off on foreshadowing and the arrival of familiar faces will find much to enjoy. The also extremely popular Cajun mutant Remy Lebeau  better known as Gambit  makes his debut here, and Taylor Kitsch is quite well cast as this roguish sorta-good guy. A young Scott Summers (Tim Pocock), later to be known as the masked Cyclops  and an essential part of The X-Men in the first three films  plays a pivotal role in this story's third act.

And eyebrows are certain to raise at the introduction of a young blonde with the ability to make her skin diamond-hard: none other than a teenage Emma Frost (Tahyna Tozzi), an intriguing choice from the wealth of Marvel's merry mutants, which suggests interesting things for the movies certain to follow this sure-fire hit.

Barry Robinson's production design is sensational, and he covers a lot of territory: from the rural lumberjacking operation to the streets of New Orleans; from the sinister laboratory environment where Logan meets his destiny and truly becomes Wolverine, to the surprising setting of "the island" where all hell breaks loose as Stryker's actual, long-gestating scheme finally emerges to wreak even more havoc.

(It is a given, in comic book stories, that super-heroic good guys must be granted ever-more-powerful adversaries, lest we lose any pretext of suspense.)

But despite the frequent destruction of great swaths of real estate, Hood's film never devolves into purely mindless action. The love/hate relationship between Logan and Victor generates a lot of drama; so does the fact that bad things keep happening to good people ... often to kind-hearted innocent bystanders (which one does not want to be, in a story like this).

Everything is given a propulsive charge by Harry Gregson-Williams' alternately moody and explosive score, which definitely keeps the audience revved-up.

Oh, and do remain seated until the closing credits conclude, because this film gifts us with two epilogues: One comes quickly, shortly after the credits begin, but the other waits until the very, very end ... and is worth the wait.

Bottom line: Jackman's Wolverine remains an action star, and this crowd-pleasing film deserves to make a fortune. It certainly gets the summer movie season off to a roaring start.

No comments:

Post a Comment