I saw this on the plane home. The odd thing is that I'd already seen bits and pieces of it while going from Hong Kong to Tokyo, but the picture and audio quality had been so poor that I'd given up trying to watch it properly. Then it had seemed okay. This time, I thought it was terrible. Of course I also reacted violently to 2008's The Incredible Hulk
, regarded as inoffensive by most commentators, but I believe this one's drawn more ire. My problem in both cases is with the story. The Hulk film didn't really have one. This film instead struck me as a mindless zombie patchwork of ideas, shots and set pieces from other, better films. There are at least four different movies in here, hacked into bloody pieces and then bolted together with no instinct as to what makes a satisfying narrative.
We start with Wolverine and his brother as boys in Canada in 1845. Yes, it's a historical about sullen kids. At first it was okay. I had no interest in what I was watching, but I didn't actively hate it either. Unfortunately the film doesn't do anything with the potential of this idea, merely grinding through it as unimaginatively as possible for the sake of the story beat. Wolverine and Sabertooth are brothers, you see, and their father was a mutant. Allow me to quote some dialogue. "Keep running. Don't look back." "Son." "Can you do that, little brother?" Yes, I'm afraid it's all like that. I don't object to the basic idea, which is hackneyed but serviceable, but I do object to the way in which it's been realised.
Next is one of the better bits of the film (i.e. the title sequence), in which these two indestructible immortals fight in historical wars because... um, because they're badass. Hey, everyone needs a hobby. I leave it to you to decide whether these scenes are an insult to the real soldiers in those wars. Apparently the director wanted to build on this and turn Wolverine into an Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, but Fox stopped him on the grounds that audiences wouldn't be interested in such heavy themes.
Next the brothers join some evil X-Men. These include Deadpool (who isn't funny, grrr) and various other losers. Arguably I'm being unfair. This is a surprisingly well-acted film, with some characters and performances I really like. Unfortunately the screenplay is churning out cliches with no connecting tissue, while the director (or editor?) isn't giving his actors room to breathe and let the story come to life. We lurch from a rerun of the commando banter in Predator to a bloodbath of evil X-Men killing cannon fodder. Note also the way in which Deadpool kills people with samurai swords and yet afterwards will have no blood on them. It's a PG-13 movie, you see. I think it's also worth quoting more cliched dialogue. "Apparently we have some issues with authority, sir."
This too doesn't last long. Wolverine realises that the evil X-Men are evil (d'oh) and leaves. He meets a woman and falls in love... but this happens in the invisible gap between more important scenes of men being macho. Presumably audiences wouldn't have been interested in seeing soppy stuff either. Clearly we prefer girlfriend figures to be thrown at us out of nowhere, having only perfunctory characterisation and being obviously doomed to have something tragic happen to them so that Wolverine can go justifiably nuts and the writers can at long last get to the good stuff. This isn't a story so much as the giblets of one. Six years pass. Oh, and Electric Guy is being hunted down. If it feels as if that came out of nowhere, that's how it felt in the film too. However there's a good bit at the 28 minute mark, where (for the first time) Wolverine briefly becomes the protagonist of his own story instead of getting to be merely the passive recipient of the plot. I liked that scene.
...and it continues. It's just so mechanical, although the film improves once Wolverine's had his token tragedy and can get nasty. He's less interesting than he was in the X-Men films, mind you, where he had the other X-Men to bounce off and could be irreverent and funny as well as violent. Here he's one-dimensional. I'd almost been feeling sorry for Hugh Jackman, but things improve for him after the scene where he's naked and tearing apart everything in sight after having been turned into Weapon X by Stryker. Just don't ask about the underwear he'd been wearing when he got into the tank. Maybe the adamantium made him super-strong even in that department and mere fabric couldn't stand the strain? Meanwhile Stryker and the US military are trying to create an ultimate weapon, which is one of the more tiresome genre tropes I know of. Don't these people ever learn? Ultimate killing machines never turn out well. How many nice, obedient armageddon machines have ever been created? It always, always fails. Why don't the military save time by burning their billions of dollars in a bucket and then taking a suicide pill? Stupid Stryker.
All that said, occasionally the film manages to breathe. I liked Aunt May and Uncle Ben, although those aren't their real names. "Ha Ha, So Dead" and "Check Out That Life Expectancy" is what the script called them, I think. Anyway, they have nice scenes. "I think there's a naked man in the barn." I also liked some of the cameos (Scott Summers, the Blob) even if I was annoyed by others (Gambit), while as I've said the acting is good. I think I liked everyone, with Danny Huston getting the most to do as Stryker and Liev Schreiber surprising me in the crucial but one-dimensional role of Sabretooth.
This is the definition of a MacMovie. The story? It's assembled from cliches with contempt for the audience's intelligence. Even the cool scenes can make you roll your eyes. Hey, do you think Wolverine might walk away from an explosion in slow motion? I also have a theory that Fox did an edit of the movie simply to bring down the running time, removing about twenty minutes of material that they saw as unimportant. You know, a smaller-scale version of what they did to Kingdom of Heaven. That would explain the choppiness and the way in which the film seems fixated on getting as fast as possible to the next cliche. Admittedly I have no evidence whatsoever for this theory, but this was a famously troubled production with well-publicised clashes between the director and studio even before the reshoots and leaked workprint. We're talking about something notorious even by Fox's standards, thanks to incidents like Tom Rothman having sets repainted behind the director's back. As with X-Men 3, this ended up being a expensive (over 140 million) but cheap-looking film.
On the other hand, if a studio like Time Warner had had this material, the resulting film might perhaps have been a good deal longer but also a must-see. Imagine telling this story properly. What drove those two brothers to fight in all those wars for other people's countries? What exactly is the nature of their relationship? Is one and only one of them a patriot, perhaps? How did Wolverine's girlfriend get involved in his life and what did she do to tame him? What might this film have grown into had it been allowed to develop its themes? That's something that the X-Men films had always shone at, even X3. What might this awkwardly large cast of cool mutants have started doing if they weren't being railroaded by the plot and were on-screen for more than ten minutes each? What about seeing the real Deadpool on screen instead of this one? Oh, and it might also be nice for this incredibly violent film to show a bit of spurting blood now and then. However all that's purely hypothetical. We have the film that we have.
I suppose the real question is whether it's better or worse than Ratner's X-Men 3. Opinion is mixed on this, but for me, it's worse. I never understood the hatred of X3, although even I can see how badly it carved up its source material.