'Wolverine' is so-so, just be-claws

"X-Men Origins: Wolverine" sets forth the life story of the famously angry X-Man, and guess what: He had an unhappy childhood.

Growing up mutant isn't easy, even in 1850s Canada, and wee Wolverine has his share of troubles. His temper surfaces at an early age, as do his talons - it leads to trouble, and soon he's on the run.

There's also the matter of his malicious brother Victor (the future Sabretooth), making "Origins" something of a Cain and Abel story, with each brother taking a turn at Cain. In fact, let's just call it a Cain and Cain story.

The grown brothers (Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman) flee Canada and end up in the U.S. military, and "Origins" shows the two fighting in various wars (Civil, WWI, WWII), their mutations making them impervious to bullets, and death.

The sequence shows Victor growing increasingly bloodthirsty, then psychotic, so by the time they get to Vietnam, he's like Sean Penn in "Casualties of War."

This, incredibly, makes "Wolverine" the second movie in as many months to feature its comic-book characters working for the U.S. army and commiting atrocities in Vietnam (the idea hasn't gotten any less cheesy, though the "X-Men" series has already invoked Nazi death camps, so it has nowhere to go but up).

The other was "Watchmen," which this movie resembles to a suspicious degree. I don't know who borrowed what from whom, but here are the blueprints to "Wolverine" - a team of guys with special abilities (including Victor and Wolverine) do some dirty work for the government, then disband. Years later, they start to be killed, one by one.

Who's doing the killing? "Watchmen" watchers will be un-surprised, as will anyone who understands why casting directors keep Danny Huston on speed dial.

Wolverine's a little slow on the uptake, and spends the bulk of "Origins" investigating, though everyone in the X-Person community warns him he won't like what he finds.

The real question - will "X-Men" fans like what he finds? They'll be glad it isn't as awful as Bret Ratner's last installment, but probably disappointed at the way "Origins" gives short shrift to "new" characters like Gambit, Bolt and Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds' appearance is mysteriously brief). Fans, however, are urged to stay through the closing credits.

"Wolverine" benefits from the sincere performances of Schreiber and Jackman, who may bring his Broadway fans when word circulates of the gratuitious nude and semi-nude Jackman beefcake. He even does a stint as a lumberjack. You're welcome, ladies.

Jackman's in his birthday suit when government scientists give him his metallic skeleton, an operation that makes him the baddest mutant of them all - he proves as much in the series of fights that close the movie.

It's so-so stuff, and will likely feed the rumors that producer Richard Donner was brought in to spruce up director Gavin Hood's subpar action scenes.

Still, "Wolverine" is much shorter and therefore less wearisome than "Watchmen," in whose shadow "Origins" walks with a wry nod (Victor can be seen carving the other movie's smiley-face logo into wood. Some kind of Marvel/DC gangsta feud?).

"Wolverine," alas, has its own weakness for faddish sadism. I don't think we need to assassinate Ma and Pa Kettle so that Wolverine can have guilt-free access to their really cool motorcycle.

Can't anyone make a movie that's full of action and also hopeful and fun?

The answer is yes.

One more week til "Star Trek." *

Produced by R*chard Donner and Lauren Shuler Donner, d*rected by Gav*n Hood, wr*tten by Dav*d Ben*off and Sk*p Woods, mus*c by Harry Gregson W*ll*ams, d*str*buted by 20 Century-Fox.


X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Directed by Gavin Hood. With Hugh Jackman, Danny Huston, Liev Schreiber, Dominic Monaghan, Ryan Reynolds. Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hours, 47 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, and some partial nudity).