Whether you deem it a prequel, a spin-off or a cost-effective fourth entry in the "X-Men" film franchise - the result either way is an oddly bland if modestly respectable adventure through some of the important life events of cinema's most famous mutant.
The lack of emotional resonance or visceral punch is surprising, especially to those of us unfamiliar with the comics who won't be sticklers for detail like the hardcore fans. Admittedly the three previous "X-Men films have grown our awareness of the character and the events of the 'Weapon X' incident. Yet you can't help but feel that the best bits of Wolverine's back story were either left on the cutting room floor or didn't make it past the script stage. This character has had decades of written adventures and, chronologically according to this, almost two centuries of life and THIS is the best they can come up with?
Though the slowest and clumsiest portion of the film, the first act also demonstrates the other potential avenues of where a more ambitious adventure could have gone. An opening credits montage shows us Logan and his brother Sabretooth fighting together in the American Civil War, both World Wars, and in Vietnam before kicking off with its own story of Stryker's team of covert ops mutants on a mission in Africa.
That concept alone would make for an interesting adventure all by itself, but the filmmakers seem acutely aware that this film is already overstuffed and are determined to keep things lean. Thus they move on to loosely establish storytelling archetypes of brothers turned rivals, a mentor gone bad, and an inevitably tragic romance with the sweet Kayla (Lynn Collins). The promising and gorgeous Collins tries her best, but her screen time is so limited and her character treated with almost disdain by the writers that you could cut it out with minimal impact to the rest of the feature.
Things pick up as the story moves to the familiar Weapon X events with Wolverine undergoing the adamantium grafting. Danny Huston is perfectly cast as a young Stryker who is using these mutants to advance his military experiments. Despite knowing its outcome, it's his conviction in these scenes that makes the Frankenstein-esque birthing and nude escape scene of 'Wolverine' himself the film's best scene. Soon after comes the most thrilling action sequence involving an impressively explosive motorbike/helicopter chase.
The cast is the biggest slice of muscular beefcake on display this side of "Troy". Jackman spent months getting in shape for this film and he won't let you forget it. Donned in a tank top and form-fitting jeans much of the time and butt naked during one scene (albeit from behind and at a distance), the actor is what grounds the film and saves it from itself at points. You can see how demanding the action is as the veins and muscles of his upper body bulge obscenely, but being the trooper that he is Jackman delivers the determination, the rage, and sadly only glimpses of the sly humor that his portrayal of the character has become so synonymous for.
For bear lovers there's Liev Schrieber as Sabretooth. Considering the embarrassing way the character was treated in the first "X-Men" film, Schrieber's take as a beastly foot soldier with a dark heart and fierce sense of loyalty makes for a welcome antagonist to Wolverine. The role doesn't allow for much outside of atypical bad guy antics (ie. lame putdowns, off camera killings), but Schrieber makes it sly fun without falling into self-parody and has a solid chemistry with Jackman.
For the twink brigade there's Ryan Reynolds and Taylor Kitsch. The former as Deadpool only shows up at the start and end, impressing more with his sword skills than his usual quick wit which is decidedly limited. The latter as Gambit starts out as a potentially interesting hustler who quickly turns into Wolvie's bland personal assistant for much of the final act. This character is the one the fans have been clamoring to see the most on screen and while Kitsch himself, like Collins, demonstrates a dashing charisma and a lot of potential beyond this franchise - the character itself seems like a decidedly wasted opportunity. Smaller supporting roles like Lost's Dominic Monaghan and musician will.i.am come and go with little impression.
With almost all the action confined to the film's second half, the balance here is decidedly awkward. The early rush of exposition feels dry, lumbering and ungainly. There's very little feeling of a thought out plan on the writer's part so events and characters are thrown together for the sake of it and written around to try and make things gel cohesively. It doesn't work. This feels especially true in the latter half which is a bunch of action set pieces strung out on screen one after the other. A young Cyclops is inserted purely as fan service, while a visual effects-assisted cameo by one of the other regular cast members is cute but perfunctory.
Director Gavin Hood, more notable for his politically fascinating dramas like the brilliant "Tsotsi" and the misguided "Rendition", displays a surprising adeptness at shooting action. Even if the set pieces themselves are rather under choreographed, they are filmed and edited with cohesion even if the visual effects are often not up to scratch. Yet Hood's hiring is obviously to bring a depth of dramatic chops the way that Chris Nolan turned the previously cartoonish "Batman" series into an emotionally and thematically rich franchise, or Bryan Singer's clunky first film and pitch-perfect second film in this franchise did the same to a lesser and more pulpy extent.
On those terms this "First Blood"-lite fails. It's not an outright betrayal of the characters or embarrassing example of studio interference like "X-Men: The Last Stand" was, but it lacks the polish and visual bang for your buck of Ratner's better paced fizzer. To be fair it 'gets' the character and makes faint-hearted attempts at establishing its own sense of mythology, but it always feels forced and all too familiar. Falling somewhere between noble failure and modest success, "Wolverine" is ultimately a generic Summer film actioneer that will quickly be forgotten.