Trying to resist the cinematic lobotomy Hollywood pulls on viewers every summer, I have come up with a movie-going strategy that involves lowering expectations. If, stepping into a theater, I expect nothing, then the films that offer nothing or close to it (After Earth, The Hangover Part III, Man of Steel, R.I.P.D.) will not disappoint as much. And every once in a while, I will be surprised by a movie that offers everything: story, character, excitement, action, intrigue, romance, and the magic of escaping into a different world. James Mangold’s The Wolverine was that kind of surprise.
Repairing the damage done by Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Mangold tells an unexpectedly personal and intimate tale with style and snap. This time around the most iconic X-Man of all is somewhat world-weary, wounded, and worn. At the forceful center of the film is Hugh Jackman, the biggest marvel of Marvel's The Wolverine, who returns for his sixth screen appearance as the lupine superhero. Letting a less visible, more vulnerable side show, Logan, a.k.a. the titular hero, tests his extremes and overcomes his limits, physically as well as emotionally. The movie is as packed with feeling as its title character, a mutant with more humanity than all of the human heroes of this summer’s blockbusters combined. The filmmaker’s foray into the X-Men franchise is endlessly entertaining, if somewhat existential, dipping into dark and ponderous psychological territory; Mangold puts his character through all sorts of physical pain, but the director is also interested in the deeper aches of the soul.
The present day finds our hero trying to overcome his animalistic tendencies in the snowy Yukon wilds, although he identifies more with a feral grizzly than any human being and hates the irreverence and idiocy of hunters almost as much as personal grooming. A good, honorable death, for the grizzly as well as the human and mutant characters, is a theme underlined nicely in these opening scenes. Despite having sworn off his violent ways sometimes after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, when a pack of rednecks mistreat the majestic bear, wounding but not killing it, the Wolverine reluctantly skulks into action, showing up at the local dive bar to set them straight.
Here he meets Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a live action equivalent of a manga pixie with red-velvet tresses and a heart-shaped face. She whisks him off to Japan, where the WWII soldier Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), now a powerful billionaire industrialist, awaits for his long-ago savior on his deathbed in a luxurious cliffside compound. The old man offers the mutant a relief from the curse of immortality, a way to transfer his healing powers onto the dying man. “You don’t want what I’ve got,” Logan assures his old acquaintance. Oh, yes he does.
Before he knows it, Logan finds himself smack in the middle of some nasty family politics, becoming the protector of Yashida’s breathtakingly beautiful granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who stands to inherit the entire empire and melts in his presence.
The Wolverine lacks the eye-popping scale and spectacle of recent Iron Man, Superman, or Batman movies, and (thankfully) the de rigueur mass destruction and jeopardizing of the entire planet in a special effects orgy, but the fights, chases, booms and bangs it does have are sharply staged. The action sequences benefit from martial arts inspiration and energy, elegant choreography, and the setting’s exotic atmospheric novelty. A thrilling setpiece in which Logan fights a group of yakuza thugs atop a speeding bullet train (as dangerously low-hanging obstructions careen a few feet above) rivals any confrontation in recent cinema, Western and Eastern alike.
Somewhere along the way, the character loses the ability to heal himself, an intriguing premise that further humanizes Logan. The Wolverine gets banged up, tires, and bleeds, creating genuine suspense. With immortality no longer a certainty, the movie reveals unexpected and as-yet-unexplored depths of Logan’s psychology. He is a complicated character and a tortured soul allowed only gradually to recover his heroic potential. Jackman’s lone ronin, a warrior without a master, makes the film look like a Western set in the East, where villains wield samurai swords instead of six-shooters, but the tough, tight-lipped hero, in the vein of Clit Eastwood’s surly presence, is fueled by true grit and an ingrained sense of honor and frontier justice. At 44, the actor is as physically fearsome as ever, an alarmingly mammoth mountain of muscle brought on by God knows what miraculous combination of weight training, chemical stimulus, and digital wizardry.
The franchise has already moved backwards and forwards in time, so here it sort of goes sideways, relating only peripherally to the central X-Men themes. With a strong aesthetic, an acute sense of space, and a pulpy script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, The Wolverine functions almost as a stand-alone piece or low-key character reboot, the only link to previous mutant outings provided by the ethereal, poetic presence of lost love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in Logan’s haunting dreams and nightmares. Mongold’s film is not without ambitions worthy of a Christopher Nolan-esque grim and gritty reimagining.
If The Wolverine may seem brooding at times, it comes nowhere near the humorlessness of the heavy-handed and self-serious Man of Steel, which, directed by Zack Snyder with an iron fist, trudges along on feet of lead. Mangold has a feel for comedic timing, from a Diamonds Are Forever nod involving an unforeseen swimming pool to a forced “disinfection” and my favorite one-liner of all, which starts with words that push the boundaries of the PG-13 rating and end with Logan calling his alternate protector and opponent (Will Yun Lee) “pretty boy.”
With a superb cross-cultural score by Marco Beltrami and sensational production values down the line, The Wolverine is a strong entry into Mangold’s eclectic filmography, which ranges from dramas like Girl, Interrupted to musical biopic Walk the Line, the excellent Western remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and the hilarious and underrated action comedy/spy adventure Knight and Day. In terms of the look of the film, I have only one caveat: in two dimensions, I’m sure the chiaroscuro lighting would look as beautiful as any noir’s, but if you know your movie is going to be put through a post-conversion 3D, turn up the lights on set.
The Wolverine does have one flaw impossible to overlook; despite the immense enjoyment of everything that’s gone on before, Mangold treads highly generic territory with a finale that feels indistinguishable from those of other superhero films. The disappointingly familiar metal-on-metal showdown involves a CG-armored silver samurai that belongs in an Asian version of Iron Man 3, with a slinky, serpentine femme fatale (icy Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova) thrown in for good measure.
Other than the big anti-climactic climax, Mangold infuses the film with originality and energy, and, even if he doesn’t quite manage to alter or elevate the genre, he definitely brings a long-awaited, refreshing respite from the general feeling of fatigue creeping into the movie-going populace midsummer. Jackman’s abilities are perfectly suited to a film that requires some acting to accompany the stunts and special effects, and it is largely his making that The Wolverine is as razor sharp as those adamantium talons its hero sprouts. His Wolverine fits nicely into a time-honored tradition of old-West virility and quiet, brute force guided by regret and guilt as much as an unwavering moral compass. They can cut off his claws with a giant glowing samurai sword and take away his powers with what looks like a bunch of sparkly, tentacled electrical leaches, but they can’t break his spirit.
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