Wolverine, one of the most beloved and popular comic book heroes of all time and perfectly embodied on film since 2000 by Hugh Jackman, has finally gotten his due in the mutant’s latest big screen actioner, simply titled The Wolverine.
It’s not to say that this film is perfect (it’s a damn noble effort), but following Logan’s first solo adventure, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a God-awful mess on numerous levels, and 2006’s disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand, the brooding hero has had rough times on the big screen.
Thankfully The Wolverine bucks the comic book movie trend of going bigger and cramming pointless team-up opportunities to instead directly focus on where it belongs, on the ageless man armed with adamantium claws.
Directed by James Mangold (3:10 To Yuma, Walk The Line, Knight and Day), the stranger in a strange land approach to this film finally allows Hugh Jackman to turn in a performance for over two hours that resonates with the necessary dark depth. Hugh IS the star of this movie, and rightfully so.
Following a chilling eye-opening flashback sequence set in World War II-era Nagasaki where an imprisoned Logan saves a Japanese soldier from a nuclear demise, we catch up with him decades later trying to forget the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (but aren’t we all?). The ageless hero is still haunted by the death of Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen) by his own hands, and living in self exile in the wilderness. He is no longer a hunter. No longer the Wolverine. That is until a violent scuffle ensues with a group of outback hunters who carelessly take out a grizzly bear Logan had cordially shared the forest with.
A mysterious visitor, Yukio (a fantastic Rila Fukushima) has tracked Logan down, all the better now that he’s got the claws out again, to bring him to Japan on orders from Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), the solider he saved in Nagasaki who is now technology mogul lying on his deathbed.
Yashida offers to rid Logan of his curse of immortality so he can live a normal life, fall in love and die old like an ordinary man. Of course this requires Yashida assuming his mutant powers via the decades of medical and technological research his company has done. Logan passes on the idea of helping the old man out and so begins the meat of the story that bridges the script’s various other arcs.
Despite his protests, Logan is nonetheless stripped of his healing abilities. Yashida inevitably dies, and his daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is targeted for a kidnapping at the fallen mogul’s lavish funeral. Now seemingly mortal, Logan takes multiple brutal bruisings along the way trying protect Mariko from mysterious hit men and ninjas lead by a sexy blonde mutant scientist known as Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).
What works on the story level here is the low key extent of the overall stakes. There is no race against time / world in danger plot line. This is strictly a personal mission for our angry reluctant hero. The film is firmly grounded and committed to sticking to one man’s objectives without throwing in Earth shattering consequences if he fails. Protect the girl and get his powers back (and maybe beat up many bad guys). Done and done. To hell with all his former X-Men cohorts and what they’re up to. The title of the film could not be more appropriate.
Jackman once again brings his intimidating physique to flex shirtless and often on the big screen, practically berating everyone in the theater chomping away on buttered popcorn and slurping an extra large soda to get their asses to the gym. Well at least that’s how I felt. Gone may be his signature leather jacket and cigar, but he does get a motorcycle and the character has never come across better as a vicious killing machine when called to arms, or claws in this case.
Wolverine fights ninjas (yes fans, elaborate awesome ninja fights), and some of the chase sequences are as bad ass as they are thrilling (I find it interesting that I was utterly bored by any of the similarly staged sequences in Mangold’s 2010 snoozer Knight and Day). A thrill-a-minute scene atop a speeding bullet train was done no justice when the clip was previewed online earlier this month. It really is something to behold in a theater.
The Japanese setting is gorgeous and refreshing (even if a lot of it was shot in Australia). The culture shock of sending Logan over seas mixes up the expected X-Men formula on a fantastic level. Though it should be noted the storyline is predominantly adapted from a seminal ’80s comic book storyline written by Chris Claremont, and adapted further for the screen when Mangold assumed the reigns from original director Darren Aronofsky.
Famke Janssen in flashbacks provides the only major specific call back to the previous mythos of the series as Jean Grey, Logan’s true love who gained godlike powers and was forced to kill in X-Men: The Last Stand. If you know the backstory, it adds to Logan’s state as a haunted soul. But her inclusion is also vague enough to not make new viewers feel left in the cold. There are some other brief throwaway X-Men references within the movie, but overall the film does a good job existing as a stand alone adventure up until the closing credits.
There is the bad news. But a good thing can only last so long, and the film takes a wrong amp’d up left turn in the latter third act, choosing to put an end to the perfectly good pacing and scale I enjoyed for over 90 minutes.
Let’s start with Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper, who as a whole is the out-of-place weak link in this otherwise grounded tale. The blonde snake-like mutant presents herself in various sexy green outfits and snarls with the big screen comic book villainy that would have been perfectly fine for the other mutant filled X-Men movies. The Wolverine as a whole does a damn great job of separating itself from the typical super powered good-versus-evil arcs by stripping the story to a one-off Logan solo mission. When Viper does her thing (hissing and spitting venom, snake tongue and all), in this case it’s almost disappointing to acknowledge the larger mutant contingent that nonetheless exists in this continuity. Her exaggerated presence and inclusion as the only other on-screen mutant also detracts from Logan’s otherwise solo super powered spotlight, and made little sense to me in the overall grand scheme of things.
The raw feral animal we only saw brief glimpses of in X2: X-Men United is our main Wolverine here, and he’s a welcome star. It is a very violent (but bloodless) PG-13 film and Wolverine makes no apology for a high body count. The sarcasm and humor are taken way down, but that’s not to say Jackman isn’t allowed to bring his signature charm to the character. We also witness Logan fall in love again, and for the first time persevere as a mortal wounded man with a fear of death which adds to the fully unexplored scope of the character. It’s also a relief to have him drop a few curse words at appropriate moments (hopefully one day for you too Jack Bauer). Profanity rolls off Logan’s tongue naturally given his temperament, and it makes you wonder what else an all out R-rated Wolverine adventure would be like.
Unfortunately the 3D adds very little to the film. Mangold’s style here doesn’t lend itself to it. These days I don’t think directors should be held entirely accountable for a non-jaw dropping 3D experience when the format decision can be made ultimately and unfortunately above their pay grades.
It is disappointing that the third act almost unexpectedly takes The Wolverine into an unnecessary over-the-top formula finish. It by no means breaks the film as a whole, but the big bang FX-laden finale doesn’t hold true to its overall back-to-basics premise that was cruising along just fine in its simplicity as a hero’s personal journey.
Overall the film delivers enjoyable kick ass character driven action and interaction, and is without question a must-see for fans of the character. We are treated to the best turn from Jackman in his signature role yet, as a snarling violent loner, with the undertones of both a deadly hit man and a Samurai. It scores all the right marks in regards to what has been missing so far from the big screen Wolverine.
Hands down the film stands worlds above the previous solo effort. This is a different animal altogether that gets so much right for what fans were waiting for and is a huge brave leap forward in adapting the character. However The Wolverine nonetheless feels like it eventually gets spooked by its own shadow and jumps back into a blockbuster safety zone instead of successfully crossing the finish line with the same tone in which its journey began. And it’s the fear of landing triumphantly according to the original flight plan that prevents the film from attaining true greatness from start to finish.
There is also, to nobody’s surprise, an effective mid-credits scene that is not to be missed. Most X-Fans worth their weight are well aware of the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, and although The Wolverine manages to successfully stand on its own as it relates to the series’ overall continuity, this anything-but-subtle nod towards what is to come was too good an opportunity to exclude. Needless to say when the scene played out, the audience I attended with (to use the technical term), went completely apeshit with excitement. Well played indeed.
The Wolverine opened in 2D and RealD 3D on July 26th.
REVIEW RATING: ★★★☆☆
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Khodchenkova
Screenwriters: Christopher McQuarrrie, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Running Time: 126 minutes