Alexandra DuPont Slices Into X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE!!
Published at: May 1, 2009, 1:44 p.m. CST by hercules
X-Men Origins: Wolverine: The Version You'll See In Theaters: FAQ
(by Alexandra DuPont)
"I have a memo for the naughty-minded Talk Backer 'Lickerish': You'll be delighted to read that [Hugh] Jackman makes for an extremely charismatic, hairy-chested Wolverine. Jackman speaks for the audience (or, rather, for whom the audience wishes it could be when it's having a bad day at the office), making fun of the code names and the uniforms and pretty much every other superhero trope even as he quietly relishes the fantasy heroism. It's a star turn, methinks; the first time Logan's claws shoot through the skin of his knuckles, it packs a thrill akin to one's first viewing of the T-1000 morphing his hand into a blade."-- First impressions of Hugh-Jackman-as-Wolverine in my nearly nine-year-old review of "X-Men" for this site. (BTW, does Lickerish still post here? She was basically the cabaret vamp of TalkBack back in the day.)
Q. What's the upshot?
As I'm sure the more seerauber-minded among you already feared, the final theatrical version of "Wolverine" is an overstuffed, chaotic clambake of a mess of a wasted opportunity. The screenplay (by David Benioff and Skip Woods) just wasn't in any kind of shape to come out of people's mouths -- it's so full of plotty comings and goings that it never pauses to flesh out a character, turn a phrase, or create a moment that sticks with you.
Here's something I never thought I'd write: "X-Men: The Last Stand" is a far better superhero movie than "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Yes, "X3" is a continuity-challenged rush job that isn't nearly as epic as it should be -- the whole thing feels like a Canadian "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" -- but at least it concludes a larger story arc, has one provocative core idea (the Whedon-inspired dilemma of a mutant "cure"), gives Ian McKellen a couple of speeches, casts Frasier Crane as Beast, and doesn't make every single one of its special-effects shots look like a 10-year-old animatic.
In other words, for all its problems, "X3" is actually about something. "Wolverine" isn't about anything. It just kind of moves Logan around a bunch and expects you to go "squee."
I'm more sad than angry, though -- because several people in the film (especially Hugh Jackman) are working like maniacs to try and compensate; there was apparently a metric ton of set-repainting studio micromanagement; and there are a couple of cool ideas and characters that get thrown under the nonsense-tractor.
Ultimately, the film's failure boils down to three crucial mistakes by director Gavin Hood, the screenwriters and/or the studio: (1) "Wolverine"'s story covers too much ground too quickly and crams in too many characters. (2) Everyone speaks in brisk, boring cliches. And (3) Hood is really on-the-nose with the big emotional moments -- putting big fat cinematic exclamation points on everything to the degree that those moments feel like ZAZ parodies of big emotional moments.
Basically, I think there's going to be a lot of the wrong kind of laughter echoing through the nation's multiplexes this Friday. Thanks again, Mr. Rothman!
Q. How does the final version differ from the leaked workprint?
I have absolutely no idea; I didn't download or watch the workprint on general principle. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious to learn what was changed, though, and if they put the workprint on the Special Edition DVD, I'll absolutely watch it first. The TalkBack is here for your edification and enjoyment.
Major spoilers henceforth (if this movie is even spoilable, given what happened).
Q. What's the story?
"Wolverine" purports to explain how Logan became the cool loner amnesiac we met in 2000, and maybe the best thing is just to say "stuff happens, with too many cameos" -- because seriously, trying to sum the plot up in any sort of detail makes you sound like that guy from the FedEx commercials:
It starts in the mid-1800s when Jimmy Logan is a sicky kid and finds out he has a brother named Victor and an abusive dickhead drunk for a dad who kills Logan's kindly adopted dad and so Logan suddenly sprouts bone-claws and goes into his first berzerker rage and kills his father and runs into the woods with Victor and that's just the first five minutes and then Logan and Victor -- who both have healing factors and feral fighting skills -- fight in every major American war and that's just the opening credits and then Stryker recruits the brothers into a mutant black-ops unit that includes Deadpool played by Ryan Reynolds who's really funny for like five minutes and then Logan walks away after a My Lai-style incident in which Stryker kills civilians who know the secret of adamantium and Logan becomes a lumberjack and falls in love with a hot schoolteacher who talks a bunch of telegraphed mystical nonsense about the moon and wolverines and then --
-- Victor for some reason starts killing the rest of the black-ops team and maybe the schoolteacher and Logan swears revenge and goes back to Stryker and gets adamantium lacquered over his skeleton as part of the Weapon X project so he can kill Victor and then Stryker suddenly orders Logan's memory erased so Logan busts out and jumps naked off a waterfall and hides with an inexplicably kindly Ma and Pa Kent-style couple who give him their son's cool leather jacket and then there's a motorcycle chase and Logan teams up with the surviving black-ops guys and gets in a wacky boxing match with a binge-eating mutant and goes to New Orleans and meets Gambit and goes to yet another secret and shockingly poorly guarded military base to fight Stryker where every single mutant we'll see in the other "X-Men" movies is evidently being held prisoner and then there are some surprises and a big fight with Weapon XI that explains the Three Mile Island disaster but not really and there's also a lot of walking around in hallways and key characters inexplicably turning up in isolated locations exactly when they're needed and maybe there's also some silliness with adamantium bullets and oh right there are multiple "stinger" endings that are being shuffled in different theaters that are totally stupid and skippable until the DVD comes out.
And I left out a bunch of stuff. It's just an exhausting pigpile of silly tragedies involving family members and loved ones you don't get a chance to care about -- and it made me realize that the partial explanation of Logan's past offered in "X-Men 2" was plenty.
The story also kind of paints the filmmakers into a corner. I mean, where can they go from here, except to make a series of sequel-prequels in which Wolverine endures new tragedies as new doomed loved ones keep coming out of the woodwork and he keeps losing his memory over and over and over? It might be neat if they took Logan to Japan and played out that whole classic comics era where Wolvie fell in love with a woman mixed up with the Yakuza and started dressing in samurai outfits and monologuing about warrior codes and shit -- but the current Fox administration leaves me with zero confidence that they'd do the idea justice.
Q. What's good?
1. Several of the actors refuse to phone it in, no matter how addle-pated the filmmakers keep trying to make them look. This starts with Jackman, who plays Logan a little softer-hearted than usual, but who also looks like he strength-trained for the role this time by running marathons while wearing hockey pads over a sweater festooned with Russian kettle bells. (Lickerish, if you're reading this, you won't be entirely disappointed; Jackman is ripped.)
He and Liev Schreiber (a real live comics nerd who plays Victor/Sabretooth with an enthusiasm that borders on heroic) are pretty great together -- even if the script never really bothers to explain why Victor turns on his brother and his teammates. There are no relationship-building conversations anywhere in this movie. The closest thing to a psychological profile that the screenwriters can manage for Victor is when he suddenly decides to fight Weapon XI alongside Logan and explains himself by saying, "Nobody kills you but me." Uh, okay. The fact that Schreiber almost makes this line work is a testament to his craft, and I'd pay good money to see him sit down and discuss the nuances of Sabretooth with Tyler Mane.
Danny Huston also retains that whole ruthless-slimeball-beset-by-woe thing that Brian Cox pioneered with Stryker, and Ryan Reynolds is funny and cool as Deadpool in more or the less the exact same way he was funny and cool as Hannibal King. That said, I gather that Deadpool is a cult-favorite character among comics fans -- but the film has Stryker basically surgically transforming him into a shirtless, mouthless super-bitch (controlled by typed keyboard commands!) who looks like a badly-made-up cross between Kroenen, Darth Maul and Siouxsie Sioux. (The film shows this character so little respect, it doesn't even let the same actor play him for the entire film.)
2. The opening-credits sequence -- which sees the brothers having a jolly good time slaughtering their way through most of the major American wars -- is easily the best part of the movie. It's full of clever transitions and jittery freeze-frames and decent action choreography and lots of increasingly worried looks by Jackman at the increasingly bloodthirsty Schreiber. These looks convey far more honest emotion than all the melodramatic screaming that comes later.
3. I do like the idea of Wolverine reluctantly serving on a black-ops team with a bunch of wisecracking mutants, and would have liked to see more of that in the movie. Or at least I would have liked to see more of that than I saw of Logan being a sad lumberjack.
Q. What's not-so-good?
1. Along those lines: If I do have one beef with Jackman's character this time around, it's that he just isn't having any fun any more, even when he should be. In the first "X-Men," he's hilarious and unrefined in addition to being angsty and pissed-off -- he's calling everyone on their self-importance and making fun of everything silly about superhero comics and trying to steal the quarterback's girlfriend (and successfully stealing the motorcycle). Sorry, but I don't really want to see Han Solo cry and babysit -- and that's what the script has Logan doing for most of "Wolverine."
2. The special effects are shiny and unconvincing. They are a very specific kind of shiny and unconvincing -- where it looks like the studio realized the movie wasn't going to be as successful as they'd hoped, so they told every effects house working on the show to skip the last couple of rendering passes to save money.
Examples: The entire final fight on the lip of a Three Mile Island cooling tower, which looks like something out of "Spy Kids 3-D"; Wolverine's claws, which look less convincing than they did in 2000, partly because they're digitally rendered even when they could have been practical; and, most hilariously, a ridiculous surprise cameo by Professor Xavier in which the filmmakers once again try to de-age Patrick Stewart digitally (a procedure that worked rather well in 2006) and instead make him look like a botoxed Star Child.
The filmmakers also, for some inexplicable reason, feel the need to abuse green-screen projection for way too many of the driving scenes. I watched Fozzie Bear drive a real live car down a real live road 30 years ago in "The Muppet Movie." Is there a particular reason that Hugh Jackman is denied the privileges afforded a Muppet?
3. The dialogue is declamatory and punch-card generic. It's the sort of verbiage an incurious writer raised on movie cliches cooks up in a hurry in place of actual human speech. This is the sort of flick where Wolverine walks away from Stryker and Stryker yells, "I know what you really are, Logan!" There are literally dozens of moments like this, where you hear the line and immediately think to yourself, "Wow. I have officially heard this line of action-movie dialogue too many times in too many movies to actually believe it any more."
4. But the unintentional "Wolverine" clichés aren't just verbal: they're also visual. For my money, the movie's single biggest crippling factor is the way Gavin Hood constantly embraces the easiest and most melodramatic shot choices in an attempt to a create a cool or powerful moment -- only to accidentally create an unintentionally funny moment instead.
What, you want examples?
How about the two or three separate occasions that Hood places his camera above a kneeling Logan so he can look up and howl at the heavens after someone dies -- only to have it look exactly like George Costanza yelling "KHAAAN!!!" in "Seinfeld"? How about the overly posed shots of the black-ops team walking down the middle of the street in perfect "Right Stuff" formation during a covert operation? How about the shot as Logan abandons the black-ops crew in the jungle, and we see the evil mercs standing in a row as the camera pulls away from them -- and then there's a giant lightning bolt to underline the fatefulness of the moment? How about the eighteen thousand different shots of a mutant in the middle of a fight flipping and landing in a perfect crouch and looking back over his shoulder with one hand in the air and his coat flapping just so?
I could go on and on. What's awful here is that these relentlessly stupid visual flourishes betray everything Bryan Singer was trying to establish in the first "X-Men." Whatever that movie's weaknesses, Singer always went for emotional truth first. He wouldn't hang the camera 10 feet above Hugh Jackman's head during a death scene; he'd actually get in close and trust Jackman to convey Logan's feelings without a needless piece of cinematographic punctuation that distances you from the character's face. This is the major failing of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" -- and all the motorcycle chases in the world aren't going to make you gloss over the laugh-out-loud awfulness of those moments.
5. Couple of nitpick questions: First, do you seriously expect me to believe that all of the literally dozens of mutant characters Logan rescued from a top-secret military installation failed to recognize him when he turned up at Xavier's school a few years later as an amnesiac? Second, how did the adamantium-bonding procedure as depicted in the film (Stryker just sticks Logan with a bunch of fluid-pumping needles) give Logan perfectly sharpened Ginsu claws, given the gnarly broken bone-claws he had before?
6. I know I mentioned that Stryker controls Deadpool/Weapon XI with typed keyboard commands, which is just hilariously '80s. I don’t think I mentioned that one of the commands Stryker slowly types during the big climactic fight is "DECAPITATE."
Q. What did your fellow screening attendees have to say afterward?
"R.P.," console-gaming engineer: "I think we should probably found some sort of post-traumatic stress organization for comic geeks who saw 'Wolverine.' We could sit in circles and share our feelings, and maybe knit or do other calming exercises. I think we could really help a lot of people through what's going to be a very difficult coping -- and, eventually and hopefully, healing -- process."
"P.H.," telemarketer: "I feel very bad for Gavin Hood. Very, very bad. I'm not even being facetious, I'm just ... like, you come off of 'Tsotsi,' and then Fox just straps on claws and doesn't stop 'til they stab your movie in the back of its teeth? I'd feel bad for Hugh Jackman, but his sing-song bullshit during the Oscars was really irritating and I am really petty so fuck that guy."
"Andre Dellamorte," CHUD writer: "The problem with prequels is that they can only be tragedies."
"V.Q.," policy analyst: "Emma Frost, a brilliant character, basically got the same treatment as Bane in 'Batman & Robin.'"
"E.C.," ambassador: "As the final credits rolled, I half-expected Tim Curry to pop up and say, 'But here's what really happened.' That was so confusing and ADD, even John Byrne couldn't retcon his way out of it."
Warmest, Alexandra DuPont.