X-Men Origins: Wolverine

X-Men Origins: Wolverine opens the summer season of movies with a satisfying wallop. It’s big, brash, totally illogical and terrific. Hugh Jackman, as Wolverine, is alternately sensitive and wild, and with or without his shirt, is always watchable. Liev Schreiber as his bad brother Sabretooth is wonderfully nasty. All the guys in Wolverine are great.

And I sure do miss Halle Berry.

There’s one female part in this whole darn movie and while Lynne Collins as Silverfox is a treat, she’s on screen a total of a few minutes. Okay, sure, this movie is based on a comic book series. About which I know nothing and am not apologetic. But surely, here in 2009, a big budget movie could have come up with a few good super-heroines. Take off half a point in my rating.

The opening sequences of Wolverine will go down as one of the best openings ever in a super-hero movie. Canada in the 1860s. Two young brothers discover they are mutants and their rages can have horrible effects. Knowing they have only one another to trust, the brothers flee and become inseparable for the next 100+ years–where they fight side-by-side as soldiers in American wars, going from the Civil War right through to Vietnam.

They end up in present-day Africa as part of an elite mutant warrior outfit led by General William Stryker (the capable Danny Huston, The Kingdom), where a search for the debris from a mysterious meteorite goes terribly wrong. Older brother Victor Creed/Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber, Defiance), whose claws grow out of his fingernails, has become addicted to the violence and blood lust of war. But Logan/Wolverine, (Hugh Jackman, Australia), whose retractable claws emerge from between his fingers, is sickened by what he has become.

He leaves the jungle to seek a life of quiet pleasure in the Canadian Rockies as a lumberjack. He lives with his beloved girlfriend, a pretty schoolteacher, Kayla Silverfox, (Lynne Collins, TV’s True Blood), who calms Logan’s frequent nightmares with Native American myths.

Up to this point, the movie is lovely, well, as lovely as a movie about mutant warriors can be. The characters have depth and the scenes of natural beauty that are interspersed throughout (shot throughout Canada, Australia and New Zealand), as if they are punctuation points in a lyrical poem, are stunning. In fact, on a scale in which you’d judge a film by its rhythms, Wolverine is near-perfect.

Then, like all tragedies, the past comes back to haunt our hero. Re-enter bad brother Sabretooth who kills Kayla, sending Wolverine on a heedless path of revenge. General Stryker convinces Wolverine to go through a painful DNA-altering surgery that will infuse his bones with the material from the meteorite and turn him into an indestructible killing machine with long, diamond-strong claws. Amazingly, all of this is still entertaining and Wolverine goes off to find his old mutant buddies.

Some of the opposing forces meet in a jaw-dropping fight in a back alley in New Orleans, which includes a charismatic new mutant, who I wish had more screen time. This is Gambit, played by Taylor Kitsch (TV’s Friday Night Lights), a beguiling young bayou warrior with a variety of skills. He has my vote for another movie that tells his origins.

Wolverine finds out that other mutants are imprisoned by Stryker, who wants to combine their different skills into a single Frankenstein mutant that will be the world’s most indestructible killing machine. We learn that Stryker’s obsession with mutants began with his own son–a fascinating background story that is never developed. Minus another half point on my rating.

Where is this prison that Stryker manages? Why right there in plain sight–Three Mile Island–where the abandoned nuclear reactor provides the setting for the most awesome super-hero end-of-movie fight ever. Even I, who hate super-hero movies in general, and their endings in particular, loved this sequence.

Along the way to the end, there are lots of surprises, violence, scary things, a tremendous action scene between a motorcycle and a helicopter, more violence, a beautiful scene with an old farming couple, more and more violence, secrets revealed, lots more violence, and even some trenchant dialogue. I guess this movie got a PG-13 rating because despite the decapitations, slashings, stabbings, shootings, smashings and general mayhem, there’s hardly any blood. Heck, there aren’t even any bruises.

One of the most amazing things about Wolverine is that it is directed by a former lawyer, a man who has directed only two feature films before. This is Gavin Hood, who earned his director stripes on Totsi, and Rendition, good movies both, but neither of which would have indicated he had the wherewithal to turn out a big action movie as well as he did this one. Hollywood certainly is the arena of miracles.

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