'Wolverine': X-Man Unleashed, By Kurt Loder

Hugh Jackman's feral superhero is back, and maybe even better.

[url id="http://www.mtv.com/movies/movie/345540/moviemain.jhtml"]"X-Men Origins: Wolverine"[/url] puts some of the kicks back into the comic-book film genre. The movie cost a lot of money to make, and it's packed with big — huge — CGI sequences; but it has a fresh spirit, and at less than two hours in length it's surprisingly light on its feet. The hero — Logan, the snarly Wolverine — is of course familiar from the three "X-Men" movies; but Hugh Jackman, with his blinding smile, heroic hair and generally ripped charisma, plays him as less of a brooder this time out: He's more fun, and funnier, too. And some of the new mutants he encounters here are so vibrant, you can almost see their spin-off franchises unreeling in your mind as you watch.

The picture is built for speed. It opens in Canada in 1845, with the young Logan and his even snarlier half-brother, Victor — the soon-to-be Sabretooth — fleeing their childhood home and moving on, with ageless energy, to fight in the American Civil War, then World War I, then World War II — and this is all before the opening credits finish rolling. Both Logan and Victor (now played as adults by Jackman and Liev Schreiber) are unstoppable killing machines; Victor exults in his savage powers, but Logan's are a burden. ("What you have is a gift," somebody tells him at one point. Says Logan: "You can return a gift.") Nevertheless, he goes along with Victor when they're approached by the shadowy Colonel Stryker (Danny Huston, taking over the role played by Brian Cox in "X2") to join a team of fellow mutants for especially nasty black-ops missions — the first of which involves a trip to Africa to aid Stryker in finding a mysterious black stone, for unspecified purposes.

It's small wonder that they succeed. Along with the formidable Logan and Victor, the group includes such super-soldiers as Bolt (Dominic Monaghan — good with electricity), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds — really good with a sword), Agent Zero (Daniel Henney — master marksman) and the teleporting John Wraith (Black Eyed Peas mainman will.i.am, acing his first film role). But although the mission is a success, Logan is repelled by the fantastic carnage involved. He bails out of the team and returns to Canada to take up honest labor as a logger and to share a hilltop cabin with Kayla Silverfox (the distinctively beautiful Lynn Collins), who knows all about his alarming powers, but is oddly undisturbed by them. Soon Stryker reappears, though, slippery as ever. "Your country needs you," he announces. ("I'm Canadian," Logan replies.)

It quickly becomes clear that Stryker is up to something even more nefarious than you'd expect — something involving a secret island and an Ultimate Weapon (and of course adamantium). Is Victor in cahoots with him? That would be bad.

The movie is powered by a succession of beautifully designed body-slam action sequences. One of them — a hell-bent chase involving a vintage motorcycle, a swooping helicopter, a couple of trucks and an exploding barn — does honor to its famous antecedent, the Nazi-bashing road romp in "Raiders of the Lost Ark." And there's an elegant humor to some of the mayhem. When Agent Zero tosses his empty pistols up in the air after blowing away a herd of bad guys, and the guns come twirling back down to fit themselves precisely onto the fresh ammo clips he's holding out, you have to smile; when they're followed by a downpour of bullet-riddled bodies, you can't help laughing out loud.

The picture was directed by Gavin Hood, whose 2005 South African feature "Tsotsi" won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Hood reportedly received some unrequested assistance on this movie from veteran director Richard Donner, one of the producers. But I suspect Hood can take full credit for the picture's remarkable kinetic unity. "Wolverine" approaches comic book perfection. It builds to a spectacular confrontation atop the sky-scraping tower of a nuclear reactor — a face-off against the scariest mutant of them all, and a sensational conclusion. Well, sort of — stay put till the end-credits finish scrolling.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," also new in theaters this week.

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