May 1, 2009 at 1:00 am

Tom Long: Film Review: 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine' -- GRADE: C-

'Wolverine' has plenty of characters, but not much personality

The excitable Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) shows off his shiny new metal claws in the disappointing "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." (Marvel)

How do you make mutants dull? They bend, they bounce, they fly, laser beams come out of their eyes, they can twist metal with their minds. You want these people at a party on a Friday night.

But somehow Hollywood has managed to make mutants seem thoroughly commonplace and uninteresting in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Instead of offering the mutant concept as witty and exotic commentary on prejudice and individuality -- as it was with varying degrees of success in the first three "X-Men" movies -- this film uses its characters as obvious pawns in a money-grab. It's not so much a film as a franchise launch, and it has all the soul of a cereal commercial.

The resultant chilliness undermines what's supposed to be the over-ruling characteristic of its protagonist: His passion. At no time do you believe anyone in this movie is feeling anything. At all times you suspect concerns about roles in future sequels are lurking in the back of their mutant minds.

And there are many mutant minds here. The story whips through what should be a fascinating assortment of super-powered folks. But director Gavin Hood ("Tsotsi") and screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods never develop any of these characters. They are literally there for face (and power) value.

Add to this the near-absence of humor -- and self-deflating humor has always been a major factor in both the "X-Men" movies and the world of Marvel comics -- and you have a surprisingly dull grab-bag of old-fashioned sibling rivalry, broken-hearted revenge motives and pre-packaged action-figure fight sequences that's lacking in excitement, emotion or meaning.

In other words -- dudes, you blew it.

Hugh Jackman returns in what has been his only successful film role, that of Wolverine. We first meet James Logan in 1845, following a messy bit of family business that sets James and his big brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) on the run. Gifted with similar mutant powers -- they're both near-invulnerable, and Victor has really ugly fingernails that rival his younger brother's retractable claws -- the two decide to go to war for the next 150 years.

But when they're recruited by Col. Striker (Danny Huston) for an elite mutant commando force, things change. Victor gets kill-happy and Logan tires of reining him in. The brothers split ways.

Flash forward six years and Logan is living in a lovely mountain cabin with lovely Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). But of course his past -- in the guise of Victor and Col. Striker -- comes back to haunt him.

Eventually, Logan begins bouncing from mutant to mutant (the Blob, Gambit, John Wraith, Agent Zero) in a quest for revenge.

The storyline does fit nicely with the X-Men movie mythology that's been developed so far -- Logan's amnesia and metallic body are explained -- but a nice fit does not a good film make.

How dumb is this movie? Pitch-perfect deliveryman Ryan Reynolds plays Wade, one of the original commandos, a sword-wielding, wisecracking one-man army, and as the film begins, you figure he's exactly the lift it's going to need to keep things from getting too pretentious or dull.

Wade has a couple of good scenes, maybe 10 lines, and then he doesn't say a thing for the next couple of hours.

Yeah, good use of Ryan Reynolds.

Marvel obviously sees "X-Men" as a huge ongoing franchise, and the source material is certainly rich enough. But whoever becomes the focus of the next film -- could be Gambit (Taylor Kitsch), could be Reynolds -- is going to need a better script and a better director to get things back on track.

The X-Men concept works because at heart the super-freaks involved are indeed men. They laugh, they feel, they have developed personalities.

The characters in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" are freaky plastic soldiers being sent off to do battle at the box office. America to Marvel: Give us back our mutants.

tlong@detnews.com">tlong@detnews.com, (313) 222-8879