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'Wolverine' mutates into a dull mess

The mutant franchise scrapes bottom in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," a movie that tells us everything we never wanted to know about the history of Logan, the hirsute man-wolf with claws of steel played by Hugh Jackman.

After "X-Men: The Last Stand" devolved into overcrowded mayhem and kitsch, someone had the bright idea to serve up an old-fashioned prequel as a means of restoring a bit of integrity to the franchise. But the result is belabored and underpowered; what might have served as a five-minute prologue to a much better movie is stretched out to interminable, incomprehensible lengths.

The opening holds promise for a kind of superheroic retelling of the Cain and Abel story: In 19th century Canada, two young boys huddle in a bedroom, where Victor (Michael-James Olsen) complains that his friend James (Troye Sivan) is always sick. James' father enters the room. Moments later, there is a loud noise at the front door. The burst of action that follows leaves both boys' fathers murdered. There is also a shocking revelation: These young lads, both of whom have very unusual powers, are actually step brothers.

A pity they should grow up to be such deadly dull creations. After fighting together in the Civil War, World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War, the immortal mutants James, now dubbed Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Victor, aka Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber), are driven apart by a shady government figure named William Stryker (Danny Huston) who's clearly up to no good.

Will Logan be able to live in peace as a lumberjack with his Canadian girlfriend (Lynn Collins)? Why does Creed, who has razor sharp teeth and deadly fingernails, go on a ruthless killing spree to eliminate his former friends? When will they adopt their more familiar monikers, Wolverine and Sabertooth?

Will you stay awake long enough to find out?

Part of the trouble with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" is that it doesn't do an especially good job explaining the origins of these mutants. We never understand, for instance, when James and Victor's powers first became apparent, or why Creed is so bloodthirsty. Nor does it make very much sense that these figures should age precisely to the point where they look like Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, and then never age another day. (The screenplay is credited to David Benioff and Skip Woods).

This new movies trots out one mutant after another, including John Wraith (Will.i.am), who can appear and disappear at will, and Bolt (Dominic Monaghan). Poor Ryan Reynolds shows up for the first 10 minutes as Wade Wilson, and then disappears until the final 10 minutes, when he reemerges as Deadpool, a kind of uber-mutant whose powers are cobbled together from a half-dozen other mutants. But if you're not intimately acquainted with the comic book series, you won't care about any of these people and you won't entirely understand what they're doing here.

Directed by Gavin Hood, who showed much greater flair with the human drama of his Oscar-winning "Tsotsi," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" eventually turns into a confusing hodgepodge of uninspired fight scenes and loud explosions. At least three times, Hood resorts to the same shot of the two mutants racing toward one another, poised for battle. But how many times can you watch a pair of indestructible creatures sink their claws into one other before you start to daydream about another movie entirely?

Jackman trudges the proceedings with his teeth bared and his jaw clenched; you want to buy him a mouth guard for fear he's going to end up costing himself a fortune at the dentist. Schreiber at least tries to inject the proceedings with a bit of sinister playfulness. But he's stuck trying to make sense of a senseless creation (Creed apparently begins killing people because he's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder); the character disappears for such long stretches, it's impossible for the actor to generate any momentum.

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