You might suppose that any film starring Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, and Danny Huston would contain enough acting fireworks to make special effects and explosive action scenes seem superfluous. Add director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), with eyes presumably trained on the unexpected depths of the superhero genre after the success of The Dark Knight, and suddenly X-Men Origins: Wolverine seems ripe to offer startling examinations of mutant evolution, epic revenge issues, and the logistical problems of pumping a 100-year-old superhero full of molten outerspace lead. It should be gnarly, dude.
Instead, it’s merely watchable. Make no mistake, Schreiber’s Sabretooth manages to combine a healthy creep factor-wait ’til you see his catlike scramble over walls and floors-with the kind of sympathetic feelings we reserve for particularly suave and efficient killer animals. Huston, son of John, may not be as poetically evil-hearted as he was in The Proposition, but he continually reveals darker levels as the plot proceeds. Everybody knows how coolly Jackman inhabits the cigar-chomping, woodsy-butch Wolverine, a slasher with righteous intentions. None of these performances disappoint, per se.
Nor do the action scenes, including scenes in an African warlord’s military compound, a leap from a hurtling helicopter, and the demolishing of a Three Mile Island-style nuclear mega-chimney. Cool, even though you’ve likely seen all these scenes in the previews.
What’s missing from this film is any sense of emotional unity beyond the cliched mandatory screaming at the heavens scene. Sure, Wolverine’s isn’t a happy tale-though it’s only slightly worse than Batman’s-but Origins tends to hide from its own miserable feelings. When a kindly old couple reminiscent of Superman’s Ma and Pa Kent are summarily dispatched, the story never pauses for grief. Instead, Wolverine is sent out on a rampage in this linear juggernaut of a story that feels like it always has to be somewhere. Even great actors can’t help here. This big galoot of a film has fangs, but is never allowed to show blood. And if we stopped to think too much about Wolverine, he just might seem a little stupid.