Story lovers, beware: As far as plot goes, the title of X-Men Origins: Wolverine tells it all. How James Howlett became Logan, aka Wolverine, the brother of Victor Creed, aka Sabretooth, requires repeated bursts of exposition, and that's just the beginning.
The whole movie keeps piling one creation myth on top of another, from the formation of a mutant black ops unit in the Vietnam era to the establishment of the X-Men as we know them. It's like an improbable six-stage rocket that keeps firing according to plan but never achieves lift-off. Hugh Jackman huffs and puffs - and strains his neck muscles - as Wolverine, who in many ways is a lupine hunk version of the Incredible Hulk. But he rarely blows the house down.
Jackman told The Baltimore Sun last fall that as the producer as well as the star of this movie he enjoyed working with the director, Gavin Hood, because Hood could discuss Greek tragedy and comic books. (Hood is best known for the South African art house hit Tsots i, which won the 2006 best foreign-language film.)
Sure enough, patricide and repeated attempts at fratricide pepper this tale of brotherly hate, which starts in British North America in 1845 and depicts Logan and Victor setting out on their own, then fighting in the Civil War, two world wars and Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the way Hood whips through the material, there's little primal charge to it. It isn't even comic-book Sophocles; it's more like a flip-book or flash cards.
Jackman's Wolverine, with his six metallic claws, and Liev Schreiber's Sabretooth, who moves like a wildcat and sprouts killer fingernails, are mad at the world for their messy family background and for the misfit status of mutants in general. They develop roughly the same relationship that Schreiber and Daniel Craig had as the Bielski brothers in Defiance: Sabretooth thrives on animal revenge while Wolverine struggles to maintain some mutant-animal decency. Before long, they're committed to their own brother-against-brother conflict, with a government puppet-master named William Stryker (Danny Huston) possibly pulling the strings.
Jackman has a wily, crowd-pleasing knack for playing Wolverine as if he were a more emotive and even more snarly Clint Eastwood. Here he's wise to include flashes of a shy, abashed charm during Wolverine's stint as a lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies, where he shacks up with Native American schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). Jackman's never too morose to ignore obvious jokes - a blessing in the increasingly pompous comic-book film genre. And in Huston and Schreiber, the movie has a couple of wily actors who appear to adore acting dismally in opposite modes: Huston is unctuous, Schreiber, carnivorous.
The movie comes to life mainly as a superhero variety show with a constantly changing bill of gaudy characters. They include Fred J. Dukes, aka the Blob (Kevin Durand), a blend of Fat Bastard and the Thing, and Tim Pocock as a high school kid hiding behind shady spectacles because he's just learning his own strength as the power-beaming Cyclops.
Ryan Reynolds enlivens one section as Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool, who employs wisecracks as a verbal smoke screen and uses Katana swords to cut through fusillades like a lethal Top Chef. And Taylor Kitsch, indelible as Tim Riggins, the crazy mixed-up athlete in TV's Friday Night Lights, ups the intrigue of the final sequences as Remy LeBeau, aka Gambit, who releases the explosive force of inanimate objects.
As LeBeau, Kitsch doesn't generate the same simmering intensity that he does as Riggins. But he suggests untapped potential. So does this subplot-heavy movie. Though it sorely lacks inspiration, it whets your appetite for an X-Men IV or a Wolverine Redux.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
(20th Century Fox) Starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber and Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Gavin Hood. Rated PG-13 for comic book violence. Time 108 minutes.