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Wolverine prequel breaths new life into X-men series

X-Men Origins:

Wolverine

(PG-13)

3 1/2 out of 4 stars

As Francis Ford Coppola proved with the second and third editions of "The Godfather," prequels are infinitely more interesting than sequels. Perhaps realizing the progressive decline in the quality of the "X-Men" trilogy, Fox devised what will surely be multiple franchises featuring the many mutants originally introduced to us in that blockbuster series.

Choosing the Wolverine character as the centerpiece for the first installment was a no-brainer. Easily the most intriguing figure of the lot, Wolverine was also played by its highest profile and most bankable performer (Hugh Jackman).

The only big chance the studio took was in its picking of the director. After offering it to bigger named action filmmakers who unwisely turned it down, the job was given to South African Gavin Hood, the guy who helmed the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Picture "Tsotsi." While Hood's art house resume failed him in "Rendition," it serves him - and us - quite well in "Wolverine."

Before the five-minute long opening credits are over, Hood and screenwriters David Benioff and Skip Woods give us an hour's worth of rich back story explaining Wolverine's upbringing, which began in mid-19th century Canada and ends during the Vietnam War. It is some of the most economic and tidy action storytelling you'll ever see and it continues for most of the remaining 107 minutes.

After an unpleasant severing of ties from a band of covert mutant, government-led mercenaries, Wolverine returns to Canada, becomes a lumberjack and settles into domestic bliss with schoolteacher Kayla (Lynn Collins). For the first time in Wolverine's life things are good, but when things are going well in the movies, danger can't be far behind.

In addition to not wasting any of our time, the filmmakers' greatest collective achievement is introducing, fleshing out and in some cases killing off new mutant characters. All of them serve the plot well, but none more than Wolverine's brother Victor (later Sabretooth) played with psychotic menace by Liev Schreiber. The volatile relationship between the brothers is in a constant state of flux and will certainly remind some of Cain and Abel.

For a movie based on a comic-book character, "Wolverine" is highly intelligent and only slips slightly when it overreaches in the name of comic relief. A boxing match involving Wolverine and the Blob is one example and marks the film's only glaring misstep.

The movie also delivers some major unexpected plot twists which regularly shift the storytelling dynamic and the characters' motivations. It won't take long before you give up on trying to predict what will happen next because you'll probably be wrong, but in a good way.

Whatever you do, don't leave when the end credits start. There are two more brief scenes which give us an idea of what's in store for two of the principal villains.

About this same time last year, "Iron Man" swooped in and showed us that comic book movies are capable of delivering engaging drama without sacrificing popcorn thrills. Let's hope "Wolverine" is a harbinger for the rest of the summer season and subsequent "X-Men" productions. (Fox)