Heavily fortified with adamantium, testosterone and CGI, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” is a sharp-clawed, dull-witted actioner that falls short of the two Bryan Singer-directed pics in the franchise but still overpowers 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand.” For all its attempts to probe the physiological and psychological roots of its tortured antihero, this brawny but none-too-brainy prequel sustains interest mainly — if only fitfully — as a nonstop slice-and-dice vehicle for Hugh Jackman. An unfinished print leaked online weeks before the film’s May 1 Stateside release will prove a mere flesh wound to Fox’s B.O. haul, which should be muscular locally and abroad.
Relatively unknown before the release of the first “X-Men” film in 2000, Jackman placed an immediate and definitive stamp on the role of Logan, the virtually indestructible human/mutant Cuisinart better known to Marvel comicbook fans as Wolverine. Though it’s as thick with exposition as any cinematic adaptation of a complex and beloved superhero mythology, the screenplay by David Benioff and Skip Woods relies, to a lazy and excessive degree, on both Jackman’s considerable charisma and fan awareness of Wolverine’s preternatural abilities. There’s little emotional modulation or sense of discovery as Logan morphs from hardened soldier to angry but principled rebel, seeking revenge on the mad scientist who engineered him.
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An 1845-set prologue creepily if confusingly establishes this tale of two mutants: Logan (Jackman), whose knuckles are equipped with retractable fangs, and older, less stable brother Victor, aka Sabretooth (Liev Schreiber). The siblings’ superhuman strength, agility and capacity for self-regeneration make them ideal soldiers to fight in the Civil War, WWI, WWII and Vietnam — and all in one opening-credits sequence, no less — before the coolly mysterious Gen. William Stryker (an effective Danny Huston) recruits them for a covert-ops unit known as Team X.
After a mission to Nigeria that involves civilian casualties, Logan decides he’s had enough and flees, to Victor’s violent chagrin. Six years later, Logan is living in Canada — just to hammer home that he’s a nice, peace-loving guy and all — but is too easily drawn back into battle when his loving g.f. Kayla (Lynn Collins) dies at Victor’s claws. Determined to slay his brother, Logan submits to a top-secret experiment by Stryker that will infuse his skeleton with a super-strong metal, adamantium, rendering him all but invincible. But he soon realizes he was naive to trust Stryker, whose inscrutably sinister motives take a while to fully emerge.
Still bent on finding Victor, and left temporarily if discreetly butt-naked after the experiment, Logan has an uneasy reunion with some of his former Team X compadres, including teleporter John Wraith (Will.i.am) and prosthetically overweight Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand), aka the Blob. It’s here that Gavin Hood (helming his second studio feature, after “Rendition”) sets the pic on action-thriller autopilot, ensuring that “Wolverine” meets its quota of motorcycle chases, helicopter accidents, fisticuffs, impalements, near-decapitations (one of the pic’s weirder, more unsettling fixations) and yet more civilian casualties.
As the action takes hold — and it’s perfectly good action, though lensed and edited with more energy than coherence — psychological plausibility falls by the wayside, as does any investment in the no-brainer question of whether Wolverine will succumb to his baser, bloodier impulses or take the high road in his pursuit of justice. A shot of Logan nonchalantly walking away from a heap of exploding wreckage, his good looks smoldering like so much digital napalm, says more about the story’s dramatic priorities than any of the on-the-nose dialogue (“You’re not an animal,” “To kill him, you’re going to have to embrace the other side,” etc).
Script also traffics in the kind of flat, shopworn comic relief that’s become de rigeur for superhero fare — mostly courtesy of mutant Remy LeBeau, aka Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), a New Orleans cardsharp who teams with Logan at the midpoint. Absent from the “X-Men” movies until now, this rugged Southern charmer is one of the series’ more popular characters, but his appearance here is poorly and arbitrarily integrated into the scenario.
Jackman just about holds things together with his reliable but hardly revelatory all-brooding-all-the-time act; for sheer bellowing rage, he’s occasionally upstaged by Schreiber, whose grisly, vampiric presence has some interesting points of overlap with his role as another volatile bad-seed brother in Ed Zwick’s recent “Defiance.”
Noisy and impersonal, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” bears all the marks of a work for hire, conceived and executed with a big budget but little imagination — an exception being Barry Robison’s intriguing production design for Stryker’s island compound. Shot in Jackman’s native Australia, the pic is apparently set in the 1970s, though one would have to read the press materials to realize this.