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MOVIE REVIEW

'X-Men Origins: Wolverine'

Wolverine's back story is revealed in efficient comic book fashion.

April 30, 2009|Kenneth Turan | FILM CRITIC

Whatever you do, you don't want to make Wolverine mad.

First comes that god-awful earth-shattering scream, then those indestructible adamantium claws pop out of his hands, all leading to a display of what insiders call "berserker rage." Believe me, it's not a pretty picture.

It is, however, a picture we see a lot of in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," the fourth movie to allow Hugh Jackman to play the darkly handsome, intense masculine poster boy for Marvel Comics' favorite band of mutants.

This is not the urbane, debonair Hugh Jackman who hosted the Oscars and did a soft-shoe routine with Beyonce. This is a man who could say things like "you wanted the animal, you got the animal" like he means them. But does he?

For as fans of the intensely popular X-Men comics and those three previous movies know, Wolverine is one conflicted dude. Yes, he gets mad -- hey, don't we all? -- but then he feels bad about it afterward and worries that trying to cut someone's head off is bad for his karma. How did he get this way anyhow?

Funny you should ask. As its title indicates, "X-Men Origins" concerns itself with Wolverine's back story, with fleshing out the details of stuff that's only hinted at in the other movies. What's the source of that animal kingdom name, where did his disappearing memory go, and what's with those adamantium claws, anyway? Youth wants to know.

As directed by Gavin Hood from a script by David Benioff and Skip Woods, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" answers all those questions and brings everyone up to speed with a brisk thoroughness. It's a solid, efficient comic book movie that is content to provide comic book satisfactions of the action and violence variety. If it doesn't rise to the heights of Christopher Nolan's "Batman" films, it doesn't stray into "Daredevil" territory either.

It also helps that both Jackman and costar Liev Schreiber, who plays Wolverine's even angrier half-brother Sabretooth (don't ask), are fine actors who throw themselves into whatever they take on, whether it be Chekhov or comic books.

Taking its origins mandate seriously, "X-Men Origins" starts in Canada's Northwest Territory in 1845, where the boy James, the future Wolverine, finds out that he and Victor, soon to be Sabretooth, are half brothers.

They also discover that they are very tough to kill, which leads to an under-the-opening-credits sequence of the boys fighting in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, even Vietnam.

The aftermath of the last of those battles leads to a visit by Col. William Stryker (Danny Huston, playing a younger version of the character Brian Cox took on in "X2.") He asks the guys if they want to be "part of a special team with special privileges." Which means joining Team X, a mutant-heavy Army unit that functions as a kind of Dirty Half-Dozen.

In an odd parallel to his last film, "Defiance," Schreiber again plays the more blood-thirsty of a pair of brothers. So much so that the younger brother, now known as Logan, quits the unit and ends up six years later living an idyllic life as a lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies and sharing a cozy cabin with the fetching schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins).

But if Logan thinks the evildoers from his past have given him a pass, he has a lot to learn. Not only is nemesis Col. Stryker the oiliest, most nefarious guy in the entire military, but screenwriters Benioff and Woods have put all manner of twists into the story, saving the very last one for a post-final-credits moment.

Director Hood, best known for his Oscar-winning South African film "Tsotsi," came in without Hollywood blockbuster experience, and news reports indicate that he took some advice from action veteran and executive producer Richard Donner. Whatever actually happened, the explosions all go off on time, which in a film like this is all that really matters.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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'X-Men Origins: Wolverine'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence and some partial nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes

Playing: In general release

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