‘The Greatest Showman’ Reminds Audiences Hugh Jackman is the Real Deal

The Greatest Showman movie poster

When it comes to singing, I still consider it to the most challenging of all the performing arts. You can be a good singer technically by hitting all the notes just right, but none of it will matter if you don’t put your heart and soul into each of those notes. You can only hide behind technique for so long before the teacher makes you see that you have to be emotionally open and show the audience you are living the song and not just singing it.

I was strongly reminded of this while watching “The Greatest Showman,” the musical drama which stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, the infinitely ambitious showman and entrepreneur who created the Barnum & Bailey Circus which ran for over 140 years before shutting down in 2017. Once Jackman sings his first note, it becomes abundantly clear there is no other actor who could inhabit a man who command an audience to where no one could dare take their eyes off him. The scene threatens to be overwhelmed by a rousing musical number, strong choreography and beautiful cinematography, but nothing can upstage the passion Jackman brings to the role as he dominates every filmmaking element to command the stage like no one else can.

For those of you expecting a complex look at P.T. Barnum, you will need to look elsewhere or, better yet, read a book on the man. Director Michael Gracey along with screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon are not out to give us a multi-layered portrayal of a man whose success in life was beset by allegations of abuse of his circus animals among other things. Instead, they are more focused on him as a man eager to break out of the shackles of modern life so he can embrace a lifestyle some would say he is undeserving of. At the very least, you have to give the filmmakers credit for not saying this is “based on a true story,” a phrase you all know I abhor with a passion.

We watch as P.T. captures the heart and affection of Charity (Michelle Williams) from a young age even though they come from two different classes of people, P.T. from the poor and Charity from the rich. Nevertheless, their love for one another breaks through barriers, and they marry and bring two beautiful daughters into the world whom they share a powerful love of imagination and possibilities with.

The scene in which we watch P.T. Barnum work in an office and trying not to becoming completely numbed by a redundant work environment resembles the suffocating office Jonathan Pryce was an employee at in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and from there I was sucked into his quest to escape a life where, as Trent Reznor put it, every day is exactly the same. Of course, his mission in starting an adventurous life is stifled by struggles new beginnings bring about. Barnum ends up buying a museum, but it’s a constant struggle to get anyone to purchase a ticket. Then he employs a number of performers which so-called “normal” people quickly dismiss as freaks of nature. But by giving the public something different, Barnum finally succeeds in making his mark to where nothing he does can be easily ignored.

I found Barnum’s story as presented here fascinating as he tries to find acceptance in a society which pretty much banished him from the day he was born. Barnum even goes out of his way to entice famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to do a series of concerts in America in the hopes that critics who constantly bash his circus act will come to accept him as an upper-class citizen. The question is, will he leave his circus performers and business partners in the dust in the process?

The plot of “The Greatest Showman” is actually quite thin to where the narrative feels more rushed than you might expect in a movie with a running time of 105 minutes. The story of P.T. Barnum is one deserving of a complex and deeply researched screenplay, but the filmmakers here were instead determined to give us a story about a dreamer who defied the odds and led a life of adventure we all hope to live. If you can accept what they were attempting to do here, this movie will prove to be an enjoyable one, and I was willing to accept it for the movie it was trying to be.

The advertisements boast of how “The Greatest Showman” features music by the lyricists of “La La Land,” another movie dedicated to the risks dreamers take. The songs, which include “Come Alive” and “This is Me,” are rousing and will get you into a wonderfully invigorated state as you sit and take in the spectacle. Having said this, this is not the kind of musical which will remain in your mind long after you have watched it. Perhaps my standards for musicals are too high as “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” remains the best movie musical Hollywood has released in years (“La La Land” is not far behind).

Aside from Jackman, the other actors acquit themselves nicely. Michelle Williams remains one of the bravest actresses, let alone actors, working today as she never hesitates to lay herself emotionally bare in a scene. Just check out her heartbreaking scene from “Manchester by the Sea” (you’ll know it when it comes up). Williams shares the screen with Jackman to where it should be no surprise she can hold her own with Jackman as their characters’ love is threatened more often than not.

Zac Efron, while I sometimes hoped he would be livelier than he was, certainly has all the right moves as Phillip Carlyle, a playwright who becomes Barnum’s business partner. Zendaya plays Anne Wheeler, an acrobat whom Phillip quickly gains a strong affection for, and she makes her presence in this movie a memorable one. I also have to single out Keala Settle who portrays Lettie Lutz, a bearded lady, as her performance of the song “This is Me” proves to be a real show stopper as we root for her and her fellow freakish performers to come out of the shadows to where no one can ignore or easily dismiss them.

With “The Greatest Showman,” you have a movie musical which has flaws not hard to miss, but I was still enthralled with it even though I am not in a rush to buy the soundtrack. Much of this is due to the actors as there is no denying they put all their heart and soul into their roles. Jackman, who has already has had one heck of a year with his penultimate Wolverine performance in “Logan,” remains a powerful presence whether he is appearing on stage or screen, and even if you have issues with this motion picture, there’s no denying there are few actors like him working right now.

As I walked out of the theater, I was reminded of something Groucho Marx once said:

“I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

Does Barnum believe the same before this movie’s end? I leave it to you to find this out.

* * * out of * * * *

 

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‘Prisoners’ is Not Your Average Child Abduction Thriller

Prisoners movie poster

From the trailers, “Prisoners” looked like just another average child abduction movie with a strong cast which would hopefully make it seem slightly above average. I have seen so many movies like this to where they now seem like the same one no matter who is starring or directing. Boy, was I wrong about this one! “Prisoners” is a heavy-duty character driven drama which generates an agonizing amount of tension and never loses any of it throughout its two and a half hour running time. In a time when many movies are in serious need of an editing job, this one manages to make every single minute count.

It’s a snowy day when Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) takes his family over to his friend Franklin Birch’s (Terrence Howard) house to celebrate Thanksgiving with a big feast. Both men have loving wives, two teenaged children who are unsurprisingly not all that interested in hanging out with their parents, and they have two beautiful six-year old daughters named Anna and Joy who can never seem to sit still for a single moment. But when Anna goes back to her home with Joy to fetch her safety whistle, both of them disappear without a trace and their families begin a desperate search to find them before it is too late.

The only suspect in the case is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man with the IQ of a 10-year old, whose RV Anna and Joy were playing around earlier in the day. When the police and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) are not able to get any answers from Alex as to where the girls are, they are forced to let him go for lack of evidence. Keller, however, becomes convinced Alex does know where they are at, and he becomes infinitely, and frighteningly, determined to make Alex give him the answer he wants. Suffice to say, some moral boundaries are definitely crossed.

It should be no surprise Hugh Jackman gives a seriously intense performance here as a father obsessed with finding his child as we have gotten used to him playing the Wolverine in all those “X-Men” movies. But as furious as he got in “Logan” this past year, Jackman seems even more frightening here as he loses his moral perspective while desperately searching for answers. Just watch him as he bashes a bathroom sink with a hammer.

Jake Gyllenhaal also gives one of his best performances ever as Detective Loki, a man equally obsessed with getting the girls back even as he struggles with an uneasiness which will not let him be. What I especially like about Gyllenhaal here is how he implies certain things about this character without ever having to spell it out for the audience. Loki is a man with a troubled past who has his own demons to fight, and while we don’t always know what those demons are, this allows Gyllenhaal to add another layer to his character which only increases Loki’s complexity.

Terrence Howard, who gave a terrific performance in “Dead Man Down,” gives another one here as the other desperate father. It’s interesting to see him go from playing an intimidating crime lord to a helpless dad who finds himself in a morally dubious position when he is presented with a way of getting the answers, but he becomes increasingly unnerved at the way Keller is trying to obtain them. Howard is great at showing how helplessly conflicted his character is, and he makes you feel his inescapable pain and confusion as he is forced to go down a path he becomes convinced is the wrong one to go down.

Kudos also goes out to Maria Bello and Viola Davis who play the wives to Jackman and Howard. Bello portrays Grace Dover, and she has an especially difficult to watch scene in which she completely falls apart emotionally as she faces the worst nightmare no parent ever wants to face. As for Davis, she once again proves how powerful she can be in the smallest of roles. It should also be noted how each of these actors is a parent in real life, and I cannot even begin to think of what emotional depths they went to give such authentic portrayals.

Paul Dano continues to astonish in each film he appears in, and his performance as Alex Jones is one of his most enigmatic to date. Dano could have just fallen into the trap of making an Alex a caricature or the clichéd mentally disabled character we have seen too many times, but he is much too good an actor to do that. We can never figure out if Alex is truly helpless or cleverly manipulative, and Dano keeps us guessing as to what the answer is for the majority of the movie.

“Prisoners” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian writer and director who won the Genie Award (Canada’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Director three times for his films “Maelström,” “Polytechnique” and “Incendies,” the latter which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. In recent years, he has given us the brilliant “Sicario” and “Arrival,” and it makes sense he is at the helm of the eagerly anticipated “Blade Runner 2049.” Like I said, I have seen many movies involving child abduction, but he succeeds in making this one of the most intense and agonizing ever made. The fact he is able to main such a strong level of suspense and tension for over two hours is very impressive, and “Prisoners” would make for a great, albeit an emotionally exhausting, double feature with Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone.”

The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski seems well thought out and has characters who don’t seem like anything the least bit stereotypical. Looking back, this could have been one of those scripts where the writer would come out saying, “Look how clever I am! I kept you guessing, didn’t I?” Guzikowski, however, is not out to make us feel like an idiot and instead gives us a fairly realistic scenario of just how harrowing a kidnapping situation can get.

The filmmakers have also employed the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, who should have gotten the Oscar for “Skyfall,” and he makes the snowy climate these characters inhabit all the more vividly freezing. Even as the setting gets bleaker, Deakins still manages to find a haunting beauty in everything going on.

Child abduction movies can be very difficult to pull off because it is easy to fall into the realm of exploitation. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and actors that “Prisoners” never falls into this trap as it instead focuses on how frayed and unraveled emotions can get when parents have no idea where their children are. This is definitely not a film for new parents or those with small children to watch as I’m sure it will make them seriously uncomfortable. But for those who like their movie going experiences to be infinitely intense, “Prisoners” is definitely worth checking out. It was not at all what I expected it to be, and that’s a good thing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X Men Days of Future Past poster

Okay, let me get it out of the way now; “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is not only the best “X-Men” movie since “X2,” but it is also the most entertaining and emotionally powerful film of the franchise to date. For a while, it seemed like the series peaked as the succeeding sequels and prequels were critically maligned to where you wondered if this particular superhero franchise had finally overstayed its welcome. But with Bryan Singer, having been led away by Superman and a giant slayer among others things, back behind the camera again, everything feels fresh and invigorating again, and it’s hard to think of another “X-Men” movie which can top this one.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” starts off in a very bleak future where sentient robots known as Sentinels have exterminated most of the mutants as well as those humans who have helped them. Not much is left which leads me to believe that in the process of protecting humanity, humans ended up destroying themselves by creating the Sentinels. Time is running out for the remaining X-Men which include Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Ian McKellen), Ororo Munroe / Storm (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde / Shadowcat (Ellen Page), Bobby Drake / Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and of course Logan / Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and they hide away in a Chinese monastery and prepare to use the only method they can to save all of humanity: time travel.

Charles explains to Logan of how they need to prevent the assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the military scientist who created the Sentinels, by Raven Darkhölme / Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). While it is completely understandable for any mutant to hate Bolivar with a passion, his assassination ends up making him a martyr and Raven gets captured and experimented on to where the analysis of her mutant powers help to make the Sentinels all the more effective. So Logan, with the help of Shadowcat, ends up traveling back to the year 1973 to stop Raven from killing Bolivar as he is the only one of the group who can withstand the rigors of time travel. But just when you think this is going to turn into the usual time-travel flick, it becomes anything but.

What I love about the “X-Men” movies are how they focus on character as much as they do on visual effects. The mutants are treated as the outcasts of society, and we feel their pain at being excluded for who they are. Singer understands this pain, and it makes his return to the franchise all the more welcome. Also, there’s something bigger at stake than changing the course of events in time, and that’s preserving hope. While Morgan Freeman said in “The Shawshank Redemption” of how hope is a dangerous thing as it can drive a man insane, the mutants (the good ones anyway) thrive on it because they know no one can live any other way. Even in the darkest of times, they strive to make the world a better place for all of humanity. You feel the weight of the choices they are about to make, and it produced moments which truly left me on the edge of my seat.

After playing Wolverine for so many years, I figured Hugh Jackman would be sick of the character as he remained a moody son of a bitch in. But the great thing about Wolverine this time around is how he and Charles Xavier essentially trade places. In the previous films, Charles was always trying to get Wolverine to look past his anger and bitterness to embrace a better path in life, and now Wolverine has to do the same for Charles. When we catch up with the younger Professor X (this time played by James McAvoy) in 1973, he is a broken man who has regained the ability to walk (don’t worry, there is an explanation) and has become more comfortable being a functioning alcoholic instead of being a teacher. His school is now empty since the Vietnam War took away many of his students, and he spends his days hanging out with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hout) who tends to his needs.

In some ways, Jackman looks really invigorated this time around as Wolverine proves to be the source of hope the other characters desperately need. He still remains the Wolverine we all know and love, and it’s a lot of fun watching him interact with the cast members of “X-Men: First Class.” Both McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who plays the younger Magneto, once again make these iconic roles their own without the shadows of Stewart and McKellen hovering over them. It’s also great to see Hout and Jennifer Lawrence back as well as both actors make Beast and Mystique more than just a couple of mere supporting characters.

It’s also great to see a lot of veteran “X-Men” actors here as I was afraid we would never see them together again in the same movie. Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Page and Ashmore make their welcome returns count for every second of their screen time. And yes, Anna Paquin does make an appearance as Marie/Rogue. She’s only in the movie for a little bit, but at least she didn’t get cut out of it completely.

The screenwriter of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Simon Kinberg, and it is based on the famous comic book by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. For a time, I thought this was going to be your typical time travel movie where everything hinges on a pivotal moment in human history, but Kinberg has a few surprises in store for us as the story doesn’t stop at the moment we expect it to. The characters are acutely aware of the ripple effects they can cause in the history of things, and there’s no time wasted on showing how out of place they are in the 70’s as they always seem to be out of place in everyone’s eyes regardless of the decade.

There are also a bunch of new mutants joining the party this time around, and the one which stands out the most is Pietro Maximoff /Quicksilver who is played by Evan Peters. Peters is a gas to watch as his character moves at supersonic speeds around everyone, and he injects a good dose of humor into the proceedings. Singer also features Quicksilver in one of the movie’s most ingenious sequences which is scored to the most unlikely of songs. Seriously, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it has to be seen to be believed.

Another standout performance in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Peter Dinklage’s as Bolivar Trask. Like any good actor, Dinklage keeps Bolivar from becoming another one-dimensional villain as he infuses the character with an arrogance and blind ambition which makes him all the more dangerous. Bolivar believes deeply in what he is doing as he feels it is right, and you come out of the movie pitying him. This is a character who has struggled all his life to get the respect he feels he deserves, and he never gives much thought to the consequences of his actions.

I also got to give kudos to Richard Camacho who plays President Richard Nixon. After watching Frank Langella portray this American President in “Frost/Nixon,” I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see another actor play Nixon again as anyone else would have simply played him as a caricature. But I was surprised to see how good Camacho was because he didn’t give us the usual Nixon as this movie would have suffered as a result.

But in many ways, the biggest star of this “X-Men” movie is Singer himself. Regardless of his current legal predicament (I’m not even going into that here), he makes a comeback of sorts with this entry as his last few efforts have seen him lose his touch as a filmmaker. No, I haven’t seen “Jack the Giant Slayer,” but I have yet to hear my friends say anything good about it. But just as he did with the first “X-Men” movies, he does a terrific job of balancing out the visual effects with character development, and what results is the most emotionally satisfying comic book blockbuster I’ve ever seen. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which was really good, set the bar high, but Singer surpasses it by a wide margin with this installment.

After watching “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” you will agree that “X-Men: Apocalypse” can’t come soon enough. Seriously, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” only dreamed of being this good.

* * * * out of * * * *

Logan

Logan movie poster

Watching “Logan” is especially thrilling if you have been keeping up with the “X-Men” movies since the first one came out in the year 2000. While the previous installments played by a certain set of rules, this one smashes through them to create something unique in the long-running franchise. No longer shackled by the PG-13 rating, Hugh Jackman is given free rein to show just how bloody Wolverine can get when you piss him off, and he gives this character, which made him into a movie star, the swan song he deserves.

While the “X-Men” movies were largely science-fiction, “Logan” plays more like a western, and this will become abundantly clear even before characters sit down in a hotel room to watch “Shane.” We catch up with Wolverine, a.k.a. James “Logan” Howlett, in a future not too distant from our own where mutants have long since become an endangered species. Wolverine is now past his prime and works as a limo driver in an effort to save money to buy a boat which he and the ailing Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) can sail away in from all of humanity. While he can still kick ass, he is now hobbled by a bad leg and a dependency on alcohol which eases the pain of surviving in this world for far too long.

The same goes with Xavier who now suffers from a neurodegenerative disease which has turned his telepathic abilities from a blessing into an unstable force people would be best not to be in the vicinity of. When he has an episode, the world around him is threatened in a highly unsettling way, and only Wolverine can give him the medication he needs to stop him from becoming a true weapon of mass destruction.

Then into the picture comes Laura (Dafne Keen), a young mutant who has more in common with Wolverine than he would care to admit or realize. Like the miraculously pregnant woman in “Children of Men,” Laura represents the next step in human evolution, and she needs to be taken to a safe haven for mutants which may or may not exist. On her trail are Reavers, a team of criminal cyborgs hell-bent on wiping mutants off the face of the earth, led by the gleefully sadistic Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) who is not about to let his fandom of Wolverine get in the way of his mission.

What I especially admired about “Logan” is how it dealt with the effects of aging and of people now past their prime. This is s0mething superhero or comic book movies, let alone most Hollywood movies, usually avoid dealing with as the powers that be wish to keep everything looking and feeling youthful. But we are forced to look at Wolverine and Xavier at a point in their lives where they are more vulnerable than ever to their enemies and especially their own mortality. Once they were powerful, but now they are pretty much off-warranty. How does one deal with arriving at a point in life where their bodies start working against them? “Logan” dares to deal with this question, and it does so in a way which is more character driven than ever before but still action packed as ever.

Jackman intends “Logan” to be his last “X-Men” as he has played Wolverine now for over a decade, and he has certainly given the character quite the exit. He even took a pay cut in order to ensure this film would get an R-rating, and it was certainly worth it as it gives him the freedom to make this iconic comic book character a far more blunt and brutal instrument than ever before.

Life is suffering, and no one knows this more than Wolverine who has lived more lifetimes than anyone else around him. Jackman has been brilliant at letting us see the inescapable vulnerabilities which are just beneath the surface of his tough and rugged exterior. Seeing him portray Wolverine at his most wounded is brave as he shows how even the most powerful of superheroes can reach their limit and yet still fight the good fight.

The movie also proves to be a perfect swansong for Patrick Stewart’s interpretation of Charles Xavier as he too portrays this character in a way we never expected. The professor was once a man of significant intelligence and insight, and now he has become a victim of the cruelties of aging none of us are eager to experience. Stewart shows no fear at portraying Xavier in his most disabled state, and while it is painful to see this once great character reduced to a mere shell of who he once was, the great actor is priceless in giving us a man who clings on to the mere gifts afforded to him in a way we all take for granted. It’s a heartbreaking performance, and Stewart plays it without a single faked emotion.

There are also a number of terrific supporting performances here, and the most impressive of the bunch comes from Dafne Keen as the young and deadly mutant, Laura, who befriends Wolverine and Professor X. At the tender age of 11 or 12 years old, Keen is forced to play most of her scenes with no dialogue whatsoever, but she still speaks so many words with even the smallest of facial expressions. It’s a lot to ask of an actor of any age to accept such an acting challenge, but she is more than up to it and gives us a riveting portrayal of a child who has been made to become something no child should ever be made into.

I also admired Stephen Merchant’s performance as Caliban, an albino mutant who can sense and track other mutants. This could have easily been the kind of wimpy character who goes through the usual scenarios of betraying others for his own selfish purposes, but Merchant makes him into much more than that as we see how heavy the consequences of his actions weigh on his conscience. In the hands of another actor, this could have been a throwaway role, but Merchant is too good to let something like that happen.

Boyd Holbrook makes a perfectly hateful yet charismatic villain out of Donald Pierce, Eriq La Salle has some strong moments as a family man who helps out Wolverine and his friends, and Frank Gallegos figures prominently in a small role as a Federale Lieutenant who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Please believe me when I say Gallegos is concrete proof of how actors in the smallest of roles can make quite the impression, and he more than does that here.

Directing “Logan” is James Mangold who directed the previous “X-Men” spinoff “The Wolverine” which was easily better than its predecessor, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Mangold’s films have mostly been studies in empathy about people who have been severely damaged by life, but who still have yet to meet their greatest challenge. Whether it’s Sylvester Stallone’s disabled police officer in “Copland,” the emotionally unstable women portrayed by Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted,” singers Johnny Cash and June Carter in “Walk the Line,” or even Tom Cruise’s eccentric spy in “Knight and Day,” the characters who occupy his films have suffered deep emotional wounds which they will be eventually forced to confront and make peace with whether they want to or not. “Logan” definitely fits in with the themes Mangold has explored throughout his films, and he makes this comic book/superhero an especially enthralling one as we are thrilled as much as we are moved emotionally.

Mangold also breaks free of the rules and conventions the “X-Men” movie franchise has laid out for its various filmmakers, and as a result, it really does feel like a true spin-off compared to the others before it. He gives “Logan” a very gritty feel, but as brutal and bleak as this movie is, it is also filled with hope. While history does repeat itself more often than we would like to admit, we are left with the strong possibility that the next generation of mutants will find a better way to exist in a world with those who have yet to fully trust them.

Seriously, I found “Logan” to be a thing of beauty as it dares to take characters we have grown up watching and put them in situations no filmmaker would have dared to put them in 10 years ago. I came into it thinking it would be the “Alien 3” of the “X-Men” movies as the use of Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” in the teaser trailer implied this would show Wolverine and Xavier at the darkest points in their lives. It certainly does, but it doesn’t leave us in a state of utter depression at its climax. We have come too far to give up on these mutants, and there’s no giving up on them now.

“Logan” proves to be one of the best “X-Men” movies as well as one of the best comic book movies ever made. With this gripping installment, this franchise has found its own version of “The Dark Knight,” and 2017 has already found one of its best motion pictures in only its third month.

* * * * out of * * * *

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

x-men-origins-wolverine-poster

I was racing to the movie theater, one of the smaller ones in the Los Angeles area, trying to get there before the movie started. My friends were all there waiting on my slow ass, and as usual, I had left my apartment at the last possible minute. Cursing myself and the slow ass drivers placed in my path, I hurried while risking the possibility of getting pulled over. With the economy now being located in the center of the earth while we slowly dig towards it, the police are handing out more tickets than ever. Heaven forbid I make some sort of unnecessary donation to them and miss the film.

Anyway, with an enormous stroke of luck, I managed to make it to the theater just as the trailers were about to start. I was thankful to find my friends who managed to save a seat for me, and I was even more thankful to miss out on all those stupid commercials AMC Theaters feels the need to inflict on us. It is an addictive thrill to get to where you are going just in the nick of time and a hard one to get over (it would help if I did, though). Thank god for Japanese machinery, especially with it having almost 200,000 miles on the odometer.

I bring this up because my maddening drive to get to the theater on time turned out to be far more exciting than the movie I ended up seeing: “X-Men Origins – Wolverine.” It is the fourth movie in the “X-Men” franchise, and the first big movie of summer 2009. But more importantly, it is also summer 2009’s first big disappointment. This has been the case for the past couple of years, with the first big summer movie not meeting expectations.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” takes place years before the first “X-Men” movie, and we get to see the pivotal character of Wolverine as a young boy who ends up committing a violent act he can never take back. As a result, he runs away from home with his half-brother Victor Creed (later to be known as Sabretooth). From there, we get a spectacular opening sequence in which we see the both of them fight in just about every major war they were exposed to throughout their endless lifetimes. From the American Civil War to the Vietnam War, we see them fighting with the other side, taking their hits, and they come out of it all relatively unscathed. Of course, when Wolverine and Sabretooth end up being played by Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, they stop aging for good. Very convenient for the box office, wouldn’t you say?

With this being a prequel, a lot of the suspense is sucked out right there because we all know Wolverine is going to survive this adventure and go on to experience many more. Granted, some prequels can be exciting and leave you hanging on the edge of your seat (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” is a perfect example), but it takes a really good script and precise direction to suck you into the present tense of the movie you are watching. The more you as an audience member are sucked into the moment, the more you forget about the film which chronologically comes after it. But since this franchise has been around since the early part of the 2000’s, we have come to know these characters all too well. We know what will happen to them eventually, and we end up spending too much time trying to connect the dots between this and the other “X-Men” movies. It makes this origin movie a lot less exciting as a result.

Seriously, this is “X-Men” meets “The Punisher” when you take a close look at the story. We see Wolverine working as a lumberjack after having left special ops six years ago, and he lives with his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox (the lovely Lynn Collins) in a secluded cabin up in the hills of Canada, but the past, of course, catches up with him like we expect it to. Logan (Wolverine’s real name) is approached by William Stryker (Danny Huston playing the same character Brian Cox played in “X-Men 2”) to get back into action because Victor/Sabretooth is on the loose. Logan says no, and this had me rolling my eyes because we all know Kayla is going to get murdered by Victor, and this will make Wolverine become thirsty for revenge. In doing so, he will be forced to alter his body to where he will become the indestructible animal we already know him as through the previous installments.

One of the movie’s real stumbling blocks is both Wolverine and Sabretooth are presented as indestructible. No matter how many bullets are shot at them or how many times they get stabbed, we know they will get back up and heal themselves in a matter of seconds. This knowledge affects the movie’s big action sequences because, regardless of whether or not they get the bad guys, we know they will come out of it all unscathed. We also know Sabretooth is not going to get his due justice at the end of this story. It gets to where you expect either of these characters to start singing “Shoot Me Again” by Metallica. You know how that one goes, right?

“Shoot me again, I ain’t dead yet!”

In terms of performances, Hugh Jackman still delivers the goods as Logan/Wolverine. If you think his successful stint as host of the Oscars might have softened him, you needn’t worry. Even with a script which deals with elements we have seen in other movies like this one, he gives this comic book hero a real heart and soul just as he did before. Starting off an “X-Men” prequel series with this character wasn’t a bad idea, but it’s a shame the filmmakers did not give him a more original and compelling story.

Liev Schreiber also does solid work here as Victor Creed/Sabretooth. While the script could have given the character a little more dimension, Schreiber makes the character an effectively dangerous rival with a never-ending bloodlust, and he keeps our interest along with Jackman throughout the movie’s two hour running time.

The other actors don’t fare as well. Danny Huston’s portrayal of William Stryker lacks the complex nature Brian Cox brought to the role previously. The fact Stryker’s son is a mutant is brought into this film as an afterthought, and it leads to one of the character’s more ludicrous moments. Stryker’s fate at the end of the film doesn’t make much sense either because you can’t help but wonder how he managed to become such a powerful military leader by the time we see him in “X-Men 2.”

Ryan Reynolds plays Wade Wilson/Deadpool, and it is same kind of character he played in the dreadful “Blade: Trinity.” While I got a kick out of Reynolds’ sardonic wit and lightning speed with swords, his appearance in “Wolverine” feels like a wasted opportunity. Reynolds ends up disappearing from the movie too quickly, and we don’t see him again until much later. This leaves us with mutants who are nowhere as interesting as the ones we met in the previous “X-Men” movies. Characters like Agent Zero (played by Daniel Henney) are so one-note, they cease to be interesting almost immediately.

In fact, this is my biggest beef with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine;” it has an utter lack of character development. The three previous films gave us characters to care about as soon as they appeared onscreen. Bryan Singer, who directed the first two films, really took the time to make us feel what these characters were going through as they were cruelly branded as outcasts. We sympathized with their struggles as they worked with Professor Charles Xavier to co-exist peacefully with humans. This made the action sequences all the more exciting; we worried about these characters getting hurt. It was like we got hurt along with them.

But with this newest “X-Men” movie, these characters cease to be as interesting as they once were. They exist here as a means to an end, to guide Wolverine to the point where we first met him. We get introduced to some cool characters like Gambit, but it feels like he is being given only a test run here to see if he will be popular enough to include in future installments. More attention is paid here to the spectacle than anything else, and it shows. There are some great visuals to be found here for sure, but without stronger characters, they just come across as empty. There is no visceral feeling to them, and not much risk is on display.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was directed by Gavin Hood who previously directed the Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” as well as “Rendition” which starred Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m not sure how much of the blame he should take for this one. Word is the production was troubled and that executive producer Richard Donner took over directing duties for a few scenes, and the script was constantly being rewritten (no surprise there). I guess by bringing in an indie director like they did with Singer, the producers were hoping to bring a fresh new perspective to the long-running franchise. But Hood’s direction is not exemplary here in the way Singer’s was, and he makes this nothing more than an average action movie. There is nothing really special he accomplishes here which could have made this particular comic book movie more unique.

Indeed, there are many twists towards the end which serve to define the character of Wolverine. But the more they came, the less I believed them. There are gaps in logic I am willing to forgive in movies, but once I start thinking about them while watching what unfolds onscreen, I will undoubtedly have some serious issues. Some plot twists would have required years of preparation for the characters to pull off, and I can’t see any of them thinking that far into the future. Much more attention should have been paid to the script, and the characters should have been given top priority. They also should have given this film a much different story than an average one of a man scorned by the loss of love and the need for vengeance. The conflicted hero act worked for a while, but now it feels old, old, old.

It’s hard to dissuade you “X-Men” fans from seeing this movie, so I’m not going to try. Granted, I’ll be interested to hear what you all think of it. You may end up enjoying it far more than I did. Jackman is great as always, but his performance is not enough to save this scripted mess. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” should serve as a warning for future origin movies in how they should and should not be made. Seeing Wolverine before he goes on his Jason Bourne-like mission takes many of the character’s mysteries away and renders him far less intriguing. Sometimes it is better to not know so much about where certain people come from.

* * out of * * * *