The trouble with X-Men Origins: Wolverine starts, but hardly ends, with its title. Origin stories are a necessary burden for superhero movies, but after starring in three X-Men movies, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine didn’t really need an introduction. What’s more, Wolverine has always worked best in comics as a high plains drifter of a character whose origins remain shrouded in mystery, even from himself. Still, someone decided the story needed telling, although presumably no one set out to tell it this badly.
We first meet Wolverine as a sickly child on a 19th century Canadian plantation. In a fit of anger, he pops claws of bone from his fist and kills the man he believes to have killed his father who, with his dying breath, confesses that he’s actually the kid’s father. Confused? Don’t worry about it. The film never really bothers returning to the whys and wherefores of his parentage, instead aging the young mutant and his similarly superpowered half-brother into Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber through a montage sequence that shows them fighting their way through American conflicts from the Civil War up through Vietnam. (Only the most famous ones, but maybe the DVD will have images of the beclawed duo charging up San Juan hill or laying the smackdown in Mexico.) After Schreiber, the more mean-tempered of the two, kills a superior in ‘Nam, they’re recruited by Danny Huston’s shifty, vaguely Nixonian Col. Stryker to perform covert ops with a bunch of other mutants.
Biting commentary on the abuses of military power fails to follow. Instead, director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) offers a lot of slickly uninvolving action scenes and a dramatic vocabulary on loan from playground recreations of Wrath Of Khan; the film’s so in love with the image of its hero shouting, “Noooooo!!!” to the sky with arms outstretched, it repeats it seemingly every other scene. It’s remarkable, too, how Jackman could be so loose and charming in the other X-Men movies but so hamstrung playing the same character in a script by David Benioff and Skip Woods that requires more emo mopery than anti-hero wit.
It doesn’t help that he’s stuck in bad company. The usually cerebral Schreiber proves unexpectedly menacing as Jackman’s blood-nemesis, but the film otherwise surrounds him with second-string mutant scrubs who aren’t given much to do and then don’t do generate a lot of interest doing it. Friday Night Lights’ Taylor Kitsch seems unsure where to run with the Cajun playboy Gambit and ends up taking him nowhere while Will.I.Am, in his big-screen debut, treats every line as a fearful surprise. A couple of halfway decent action scenes do little to distract from the story’s mounting ludicrousness—two words: adamantium bullets—or a conclusion that’s only a little more satisfying than a projector breakdown. Maybe.