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'X-Men Origins: Wolverine'

Zero, Deadpool, Gambit, Wraith, not to mention the title character - there are many mutants to juggle, and even more comic-book fans to please, for " X-Men Origins: Wolverine," the latest in the popular Marvel movie franchise.

Fortunately it moves with enough speed and agility that viewers won't notice a dropped ball or two.

You don't need the other "X-Men" flicks under your belt to enjoy "Wolverine," nor must you appreciate the sight of Hugh Jackman shirtless, though both help. The efficient opening sequences fill us in: Mutant brothers Logan (Jackman) and Victor (Liev Schreiber), veterans of every war since 1861, join a covert team of mutants headed by military honcho William Stryker (Danny Huston). But their unsavory missions - shades of 'Nam - lead Logan to quit the team just when the sadistic Victor is beginning to enjoy himself.

Years later, Logan's quiet life in the Canadian Rockies comes to a halt when Victor resurfaces with doubled powers and fratricide on his mind. As the brothers hunt each other, Logan reluctantly allows Stryker to convert him into the indestructible, metal-clawed superhero Wolverine.

That helps when battling Victor, but even Logan seems no match for the supermutant Deadpool ( Ryan Reynolds, hiding his marquee looks under hideous latex).

The movie dithers too long with secondary mutants like the disappearing Wraith (will.i.am, of Black Eyed Peas) and the morbidly obese Dukes (Kevin Durand), whose power to gain weight might not astound the average American. But Schreiber, as Victor, is thrilling: Sporting tiny fangs and a nasty grin, he virtually radiates evil.

Director Gavin Hood replaces series veteran Bryan Singer and partly imitates him, striking a balance between comic-book corn and realism. Elaborate choreography mixes with blunt violence, adding to the overall tension.

All of which makes "Wolverine" - with or without Jackman's well-defined pecs - a satisfyingly crunchy action flick.

PLOT The action-filled backstory of Hollywood's hunkiest mutant.

CAST Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Ryan Reynolds

LENGTH 1:48.

PLAYING AT Area theaters.

BOTTOM LINE Schreiber nearly steals the show in this fast-moving, hard-hitting addition to the "X-Men" franchise.

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