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. "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"

It's the month for origin movies as this and "Startrek" unspool in May of '09 as prequels to successful franchises. Of course, by concentrating on Wolverine, easily the most charismatic and forceful of the lot of mutants who have combined into a team called X-Men (women included), one wonders if each of the others will rate a movie of their own. Why do I think the odds are against it?

Though the shot in the arm for a series considered spent has worked ("Batman Begins"), a resurrection can only be as good as the inventiveness that went into it. Unfortunately, there's insufficient depth in this attempt by a whole new creative team, namely, director Gavin Hood ("Tsotsi") and writers David Benioff and Skip Woods to accomplished the desired aim. The result is anything but a certainty.

The kernel of the idea is there but the material to make this an inspirational realization is sketchy and skin-deep. As a result, the core idea of mutants as freaks, of value only as secret weapons for the military but otherwise disposable as threats to the nation, becomes repetitious. This creative team shoulda' taken a lesson from the "Star Trek" boys who had a bigger challenge and pulled it off payloads better.

Don't get me wrong though, this is far from a total flop. What you get for your money here is high energy, good acrobatics and plenty of effects. The Hugh Jackman charisma is nothing to reject or laugh about. The man is as solid and magnetic as always. So, too, is the man brought in to play his brother, big Liev Schreiber.

The two of them, Logan the kid and Victor the big bro' discover their mutant morphology at a time in their young lives when they thought of each other as step-brothers under the thumb of a brutal father/step-father. But their actual progeny isn't discovered until Logan uses his nascent knuckle swords to kill the tyrant of the house. But it seems mom strayed a bit and, when Logan and Victor learn of their true relationship, a bond is borne that multiplies the power of their mutational advantages.

Through an extended montage of the siblings developing into efficient, mutually protective soldier-killers of aggressive ferocity and kill counts from the Civil War to Vietnam, differences emerge as Logan tries to modify Victor's increasing tendency to kill wantonly. With little success.

The brothers live long enough to bring them into modern times and come to the attention of Stryker (congenitally cunning Danny Huston), a military attache running a highly secret, off-the-books program to harness mutant power to the nation's cause, with a private agenda and politics thrown in. He recruits the most savagely murderous ones into a corps of human weapons that makes the Delta Force look like a Sunday school glee club. But, finally, Logan shows his character and humanity by refusing to participate in a mission and walking away. It's not something his leader and mates--and least of all his brother who sees it as a betrayal--are going to accept.

Six years later we find Logan settled into a remote Canadian community as a lumberjack working the local forest. He is now sharing his life and a very deep love with his wife, schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (fascinating Lynn Collins). It's with her that the animal whose name he will appropriate is first mentioned. But when it comes to the idylls of a quiet life, there's always a spoiler. Victor, fully empowered now as Sabretooth, shows up, announcing by his presence that Logan has been located, and will be killed. A fight between them is unmerciful but inconclusive. Shortly thereafter Logan discovers Kayla's dead body. He harbors no doubt about the identity of her killer. He rages. For the first time, as Wolverine!

Stryker takes advantage of this turn of events by convincing Logan to undergo an experimental procedure that will infuse a metal stronger than titanium to replace the cellular structure of his body, making his transformation into the powerhouse of the preceding series complete. Special effects and exquisitely controlled directing and writing bring him through a period of doubt as to the final results of the procedure. When he rises and unsheaths his knuckle swords, we know. Where before his retractable implements were bony and yellowish, they have become terrifying, razor sharp mini-swords with a mirror finish. It, and he, are now close to indestructible.

Which makes all future combat choreographically extreme and testosterone charged. The casting of two highly athletic and terrifyingly threatening actors pays off with the ability to let them loose on the stunts and the daring that makes these scenes central to the drama. But the repetition of their combat eventually becomes substitutes for more nuanced insight into their character makeup. The genius, or sensitivity to explore the internal characteristics of the man/mutant nature and make this a more dimensional experience just isn't here. The creative heads are just too into those steroidal claws at the end of their guy's arms.

Jackman holds the screen with what seems little effort and there's never a time you aren't rooting for him in a role he couldn't disassociate himself from if he tried. Schreiber excels as the brute force villain and he maintains that mask despite its overuse. Huston is sharp and full of all the required guile of the puppetmaster who helps drive the action that keeps his boys at each other's throats.

A less obvious standout of the piece is Collins who, as we saw in "The Merchant of Venice," is more than a gorgeous face. What you see here is a talent that takes a stock, stereotypical role and commands your full attention, if not enchantment. As far as performance potentials go, keep your eye on this singular actress.

A certain unfinished quality to the story left me with at least one major lapse in understanding. At first, I believe, Stryker enhanced Logan/Wolverine's power so that he might be better equipped to kill Vincent/Sabretooth. That becomes contradicted when he starts rooting for it to be the other way around. He's now stuck with having made the man he wants to destroy close to indestructible.

Disppointment stems from higher expectations, but there is enough here to provide some quickening to the heartbeat for action junkies and some satisfaction in the strong acting out of the sibling rivalry. The outlines of what this origin prequel might have been is the major takeaway but the pure physicality and first-rank technical artistry found here makes this "X-Men Origins" slightly more than totally superficial.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Hugh Jackman as Wolverine
Mad as hell and more deadly than ever.

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