It's hard to know quite how to describe X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It's not the disaster that some predicted. It's also not the triumph that would silence critics come opening day. Rather, it's just okay—an exercise in assembly-line studio hitmaking that strikes all the right notes but none of them loudly or clearly enough.
While from the first appearance of Hugh Jackman in the original X-Men his character may have seemed destined to enjoy his own spinoff, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a conventional and competently executed epic that mostly works, but without offering anything new, different or even just interesting to get excited about.
[Warning: Spoilers follow.]
Wolverine is born in the 1830s as James Howlett (Jackman as an adult), a sickly child whose powers manifest themselves when he discovers that his adopted father has been murdered by his biological father. He flees into the woods with his brother Victor (Liev Schreiber), and the two endure the American Civil War, World Wars I and II, and Vietnam fighting side by side, until Victor beheads a superior officer. When the Army unsuccessfully tries to kill them, William Stryker (Danny Huston) approaches the duo and offers them a spot on a team of mutants he is assembling.
James and Victor work for Stryker until the military commander orders them to execute civilians, which James wants no part of. Relocating to Canada, James rebuilds his life with a young woman named Kayla (Lynn Collins), but Victor hunts them down and kills her. Filled with revenge, James reconnects with Stryker, agreeing to undergo an experimental procedure that will help him track down his brother. As the process nears completion, James realizes that he was betrayed by Stryker, and escapes, starting an escalating chain of violence that pits brother against brother as James—now renamed Logan, the Wolverine—begins to uncover the truth about his life.
Not having seen the workprint version that leaked online a month prior to the film's theatrical release, I'm unable to specify what differences there might have been between the earlier cut and this final print. That said, Wolverine nevertheless feels unfinished in many respects, from lackluster special effects—particularly in several of the end sequences—to its massive, unfocused story, which wants to include as many characters and subplots as were featured in the X-Men films. Director Gavin Hood, whose previous film was the underwhelming Iraq War drama Rendition, manages to do a serviceable job assembling all of the elements that are required for the film to satisfy audiences but lays them out so plainly on screen that it's impossible to get deeply invested in the character's tragic plight.
At the same time, thanks to a wealth of pretty hardcore violence, and action scenes that are for the most part well staged, there are a few genuinely exciting moments. Wolverine's initial battle against the military (much of which makes up the theatrical trailer) comes together well as one of the film's best set pieces, particularly because it begins with an eruption of unexpected violence that could have signaled a darker and more emotionally complex movie than this one. Additionally, Jackman and Schreiber are ideally suited to play opposite one another, as brothers or not; both have the acting chops to pull off their characters' respective humanity and ferocity without making Wolverine or Sabretooth either too tough or wimpy. And as his love interest Kayla, Collins is both fetching and talented enough to hold her own against the more seasoned Jackman.
As one might expect, there are a few problematic continuity changes between Wolverine and the X-Men films, not the least of which is Sabretooth's personality. But, admittedly those are largely irrelevant in the context of the entire franchise, which everyone involved is no doubt hoping will continue to expand (both with Wolverine and other characters) if this film succeeds. Ultimately, aside from some technical gaffes and a story that, while serviceable, fails to arouse consistent excitement, it's hard to have too many problems with the film. Some might call that damning Wolverine with faint praise, but really all it means is that I got another satisfactory adventure involving my favorite X-Men character, when what I really wanted was something that would truly make me go berserk.