This is the movie that was famously pirated a few weeks back and posted on the Internet, but now that it’s actually been released, it’s clear that it’s no treasure—though maybe it deserves to be buried. “Wolverine” is one of those dark, clammy, dispiriting comic book movies like “Daredevil,” “Elektra” and “Catwoman,” loud and frenetic but lacking in either dramatic depth or a sense of fun.
The spin-off of the “X-Men” franchise is an “origins” episode for the hirsute fellow with the Freddy Krueger claws played by Hugh Jackman. Not being a fan of the comic character, who has enjoyed a long run, I can’t say how closely the backstory offered here agrees with the mythos that’s appeared on the printed page, but can say that on its own, the narrative is complicated but grimly tedious.
After a brief prologue which gives us a snapshot of the unhappy childhood of the later Wolverine (born Jimmy, but later calling himself Logan) and his older brother Victor, both young mutants with sharp appendages, and offering a montage of their brutal service in wars from the mid-nineteenth century through Vietnam (they age only so far, it seems, and miraculously heal when injured), the script links them up with General William Stryker (Danny Huston), who enlists them in a band of mutants involved in various black ops projects. After a massacre in Africa, however, Logan decamps in disgust, and finds simple happiness as a lumberjack in Canada married to schoolmarm Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins).
Unfortunately, Victor—or Sabretooth in his killer-cat persona, shows up and slays Kayla. That sends Logan back to Stryker to have his skeleton and retractable claws painfully reinforced with adamantium, the strongest of all metals, so that he can track the supposedly renegade Victor down. But of course that’s only the beginning of a plot in which everyone is a pawn in an effort to devise a warrior who can take care of all the pesky mutants. Happily, at the end an old—though here new—friend shows up to act as their protector.
But the story is little more than an excuse for lots of action scenes, some of them staged so smudgily that it’s difficult to discern what’s happening amid the muddy CGI. The dullest are the periodic one-on-ones between Logan and Victor, but a long, concluding threesome involving both of them and Stryker’s super-mutant is even more annoying by reason of its excess and visual sloppiness. There are plenty of other mindless action sequences, too—helicopter-motorcycle chases and battles with other mutants like cardsharp Remy LeBeau (Tyler Kitsch), as well as a crudely slapstick boxing match between Logan and the grossly overweight Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand in a fat suit that was probably lent him by Mike Myers). All of it has a rote, been-there, seen-that feel.
And breaking them up are reams of footage in which Jackman broods, simmers and bellows out animal howls of anguish. But he’s never able give the character a truly human feel; even when he’s struggling to keep his destructive side in check, he’s dealing in mere poses. In the end, except for its bigger budget, the whole enterprise has little more to offer than the crummy adaptations of Marvel titles that were made on a shoestring in the 1980s by people like Albert Pyun.
Which brings us to the flat, impersonal direction of Gavin Hood, who scored big with the powerful “Tsotsi,” tried to achieve something important, even though he failed, with “Rendition,” and here seems to have sold out for a paycheck. He not only fails to bring out the best in Jackman, but encourages the worst excesses in both Schreiber and Huston, particularly in the close-ups that exaggerate their penchant for scenery-chewing. And he gets little from Kitsch, Ryan Reynolds (as Wade Wilson, an adept with swords), Will.i.am (as a guy who can transport himself in a flash), or even Dominic Monaghan (as a fellow with an electric touch).
It’s possible that “X-Men” fans will appreciate “Wolverine,” but like virtually all prequels, to the uninitiated it’s likely to seem both confusing and unnecessary. On the evidence of this movie, it’s a franchise that doesn’t need rebooting, but just to be booted out.