[SPOILERS DO FOLLOW, BUB]
This has been a big action packed summer. Man of Steel, Iron Man 3, Red 2, Star Trek: Into Darkness, etc. Each filled with action heroes and explosions galore. You would expect the same from the latest entry from the Marvel staple of comic book heroes. However, The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold, is not what you expect.
This is a good thing.
Following the events of 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan (Hugh “jacked up” Jackman) is in self-imposed, boozed-infused exile in the Canadian Rockies as penance for having killed his love Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix (Famke Janssen, who appears intermittently throughout the film as either a spirit or a manifestation of Logan’s guilty conscience). However, he is brought out of seclusion by a mysterious girl named Yuiko (Rila Fukushima) as emissary for dying Billionaire industrialist and samurai Shingen Yashida (a role shared by Hiroyuki Sanada and in youth by Ken Yamamura), whom Logan saved from the nuclear annihilation of Nagasaki during the Second World War, who offers a solution to Logan’s inner turmoil. The film’s action then moves to Japan, wherein Logan must not only deal with the prejudicial double whammy of being both gaijin ("foreign devil") and a mutant, but must also protect Shingen’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from that Yakuza and ninjas. Yet, in the midst of all, Logan must also contend with the mysterious loss of his mutant healing ability, thus adding an extra element of danger to the proceedings.
While this sounds like a typical summer actioner, the film’s hook actually lies in its characterization. Directed by James Mangold (Walk The Line, 3:10 To Yuma), working from a screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Scott Frank, and Mark Bomback (the skeleton of which is based off of the 1982 “Wolverine” mini-series scripted by Chris Claremont with art by Frank Miller (Sin City, the abysmal The Spirit)), the film is lusciously shot with a film noir sensibility done in independent movie/art house style though the result is more Clavell than Kurosawa. The film is visually vibrant in color and brightness; so much so that even the nighttime/darkness scenes seem to shine (a welcome antithesis to the barely perceptible night scenes of, say, The Dark Knight Rises), though the 3D of the film calls attention to much of the CGI flaws and can render background actors into toy soldiers.
Themes of immortality and its tragic nature have been previously explored in other fantasy based fare such as Interview With The Vampire and Highlander, but never has it seemed so personal. There’s something more…genuine…about this film, which contains a heart that the previous Wolverine film lacked. This lies in part due to Jackman’s portrayal (fifth going on sixth) as Logan who, while not quite his comic book basis, fits Jackman like a well-oiled glove (as oiled as his physique in this film, which provides a lot of eye candy for those who seek same). In this film, Logan is an “Urban Ronin” (city dwelling, master-less Samurai) who is adrift in a sea of his own pain due to immortal life and love lost. What is commendable about Jackman’s performance is that, despite having played the character repeatedly, the performance is never phoned in, unlike Sean Connery’s last couple of turns as “James Bond” (especially You Only Live Twice, which also took place in Japan). Jackman gives as much heart into his role as he did in the first X-Men film. As such, the audience is rewarded with a much more introspective take on the character. Yes, Logan moves through much of the film with a scowl that would make Clint Eastwood green with envy. However, Jackman gives the character more depth that actually befits the subject matter. His story is told in the “show, don’t tell” mold, and it is something to watch. One look can evince volumes, and his Wolverine has stories to tell.
Jackman’s performance does not take place in a vacuum. As Mariko, Tao Okamoto proves to be an adequate foil and love interest. Under Mangold’s guidance, Okomoto’s body language takes what could have been a forced romance and transform it into a natural progression. However, Fukushima’s Yukio practically steals the film as Wolverine’s crimson hued “Robin”, if you will, who is precociously beguiling yet steel of resolve. Fukushima’s chemistry with Jackman is such that one would want to see more Wolverine stand-alone movies with their respective characters buddied up. Their partnership truly works.
The same cannot be said for Svetlana Khodchenkova as “Viper”, a mutant scientist/assassin who is more annoying than menacing, looking more at home on a catwalk than in a secret laboratory. While Khodchenkova succeeds in making the audience want her character to get her comeuppance, dramatically speaking, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Playing Jean Grey for the fourth time, Janssen is not given much more to do than to act ethereally; a powerful character reduced to mere catalyst for the main character’s emotional beats. Will Yun Lee, who showed promise in what little he had to do in 2002’s Die Another Day, portrays Harada, a character who is at cross-purposes with Wolverine. He takes what could have been a stock two-dimensional “rival” character and imbues it with a sense of sympathetic dignity. Sanada and Yamamura give interesting contrasts in their shared portrayal of the character of Shingen at different ages that add to the story.
The film’s action is both internal and external, both of which acoustically realized by Marco Beltrami’s mood/scene-appropriate score. When the action does get external, however, it does so in “take no prisoners” fashion. One extended fight sequence is something right out of the Hong Kong output from the ‘70s. A bullet train sequence, one of the film’s highlights, strains both credulity and physics with over-the-top pulse-pounding panache. But, as aforesaid, it’s the quiet moments that shine, crackling with an intensity that is no less arresting than guns, arrows, and Adamantium claws.
What few flaws exist stem from the story's narrative execution. Some of the plot turns are glaringly obvious if one knows what to look for (even if one did not know the comic backstory of any of these characters), especially when it comes to “the big reveal”. The story beats, however, are off track. There is a sequence at the beginning of the film (cribbed from the comic mini-series) that parallels Logan’s journey. Without giving too much away (too late, I know), “wounded animal” and “mortality” motifs play a huge part in the film. However, the emotional realizations and payoffs seem to arrive much earlier in the narrative than they should; impacting their emotional resonance and minimizing their effectiveness. Thus, the end of the film is not as powerful as it should be. Some ingredients were added to the recipe too soon, and a cinematic feast is reduced to a soufflé, albeit a completely enjoyable one.
The film skirts the line between what “Wolverine” fans want to see in live action and what Hollywood finds acceptable for its movie heroes, though it does come to some acceptable compromise (as evidenced in one scene that takes place in a high rise building). However for the casual movie goer, The Wolverine is a solid action picture with plenty of high stakes, action, and romance. Most importantly, and more so than any other superhero actioner this year…yes, any other…The Wolverine has heart and is a highly recommended must see.
Oh…needless to say…stay through the credits! You will not be disappointed.