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The Wolverine (2013)

August 3, 2013

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written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bombeck and Scott Frank

produced by: Lauren Shuler Donner, Hugh Jackman, Hutch Parker & John Palermo

directed by: James Mangold

rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language) 

runtime: 126 min.

U.S. release date: July 26, 2013

 

If you’re going to be thorough (as many X-fans are), “The Wolverine” is the sixth “X-Men” movie from 20th Century Fox. Like all of the X-books that have been on the shelves of your LCS (that’s Local Comic Shop, bub!) since the early 90s, all six of these movies have included a certain Canadian mutant. (That’s right, I’m including that great surly cameo from “X-Men: First Class”). It goes without saying that the adamantium-laced Wolverine is the most popular mutant in both mediums. So much to the point that many fanboys have complained at the over-saturation of the character. As far as the comics go, I get that, as a little Logan does indeed go a long way. But there’s no denying that when it comes to Hugh Jackman portraying the character, I can watch him over and over again.

That right there may sound like some unabashed enthusiasm for the actor. When it comes to him playing Wolverine, yeah, it is. Color me impressed that a 44 year-old actor can stay so ripped for a role that he started 13 years ago. You can chalk it up to his personal trainers and dietitians and so on….but he’s still has to agree to it each time (and you can say, “Who wouldn’t?”). Beyond the required physicality for the role, Jackman has definitely exuded the right attitude for the character. The surly demeanor, the charm and the wounded hero’s tenacity to protect and defend.

On top of all that, after six appearances as the character, Jackman still comes across like he’s having fun with the character. Whether he’s exploring the pathos and pain or just slicing up bad guys, he’s just as committed (if not moreso) from when we first saw him open up Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” back in 2000.

 

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Now with all that praise for Jackman you might think that I was eagerly anticipating this new Wolverine movie. Not so. That last solo outing, the lazily-titled “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (as if there’ll be “Origin” movies for other X-Men), with its cartoonish posturing and video game action, was a mess. I remained skeptical that there’d even be (or should be) another Wolverine movie after that debacle. When I heard that director James Mangold (“Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma”) had signed on and that the sequel would adapt elements of the popular Japan storyline from the 80s by writer Chris Claremont, my optimism increased slightly, but none of the trailers did anything for me.

It seemed like I was going to get more over-the-top action. As it turns out, Mangold, along with screenwriters Mark Bomback (“Unstoppable”), Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”) and uncredited assistance from Christopher McQuarrie (“Jack Reacher”, who also helped out on “X-Men”), has delivered probably the best depiction of the character since “X2: X-Men United”. That’s mainly because the focus this time around is on Logan, aka Wolverine, and not all the guest stars that surround him. Granted, there is an assortment of characters to keep track of here, but the screenplay accentuates the mental and emotional strain that comes with being immortal, which is essentially what Logan’s mutant healing powers have made him. The idea of living forever may seem attractive to some, but having lived it and seeing so many die around him, Logan definitely wouldn’t recommend it.

The movie starts us off in WWII Japan, where we find Logan (Hugh Jackman) chained up in a hole in the ground at a Nagasaki POW prison camp. As the U.S. drop their historic bomb, Yashida (newcomer Ken Yamamura) frees Logan and in return the mutant saves his life from nuclear obliteration. The sequence quickly demonstrates Logan’s heroism (for those new to the character) and serves as a haunting remembrance, rather than a flashback for the character, that finds him waking up next to Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, a cameo with limited wardrobe), the love he had to kill for the good of the many. That’s all an illusion though, more lifelike imagery that haunts Logan in his dreams.

When he awakens to reality, we find him looking like Jean Valjean (we almost expect him to break out into song, reprising Jackman’s Oscar-nominated role from last year), with scraggily long hair and a bushy beard. He’s a nomad, wandering around like a homeless dude, living the hermit life in the Yukon mountains. After a cool bar scene where Logan confronts a handful of ignorant hunters who left a CGI bear to die and then brag about it – which harkens back to Logans’ intro back in “X-Men” – we meet Yukio (former fashion model Rila Fukushima) an athletic young precognitive assassin who assists Logan and then persuades him to fly with her back to Japan to say farewell to her employer, the now-dying Yashida (played in old age by Hal Yamanouchi), who did pretty well for himself as a tech tycoon.

 

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Yashida isn’t surprised to see that the reluctant Logan looks exactly the same as he did on the memorable day he saved his life, which is why he extends the mutant an offer.  He states he has the technological ability to transfer Logan’s healing factor to his own body, with the help of the venom-spewing femme fatale, Viper (a bland Svetlana Khodchenkova, who only gets interesting when she loses her hair), allowing Logan to die a dignified mortal death, something Yashida considers “a hero’s death”. How thoughtful.

The offer is declined, but Logan soon becomes embroiled in a struggle for power between the yakuza (that’s Japanese mafia) and an army of ninjas led by Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun LeeTotal Recall”), that finds Yashida’s heir and granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) caught in the crossfire. Typically drawn to damsels in distress (even tough ones that can seemingly take care of themselves), Logan escorts Mariko to safety, essentially becoming her bodyguard (with Yukio, her childhood friend, following them and becoming his) as they are chased across rural and urban Japan. As the two go into hiding, Logan learns that both Mariko’s father (Hiroyuki Sanada “Speed Racer”) and her would-be suitor (Brian Tee) are involved in the hit on her. Action and drama come to a head when Logan discovers the real reason behind Yashida’s offer, which ominously involved a giant Silver Samurai.

Watching “The Wolverine” made me forget about “Origins”, so just because of that, it succeeds (although I did miss Liev Schreiber) . At no point does Logan hold a dead loved one and scream “Nooooooo!!” into the heavens. What a relief. It may not be the R-rated Wolverine movie fans have always longed for (hey, he does swear here and there), but it is the movie that should have been his first solo outing. The movie benefits from having very few other mutants and, better yet, not many familiar actors for a superhero movie released by a major studio. I appreciate that they took a chance on taking a storyline so strongly associated with Wolverine lore and mostly maintaining a certain loyalty to the source material.

 

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It helps that both Jackman and Mangold take the character seriously (granted, Jackman’s natural charisma lends some appropriately placed humorous beats) while the story grasps some traditional conventions, like “the shattered man” and “the stranger in a strange land”, to name a few. Those may be age-old storytelling devices, but it’s still cool to see Logan navigate them and, for once, not try to find out his past. In this movie, he’s a wounded man trying to determine his future (be it purposefully or subconsciously), while being haunted by his past. Since we’ve visited the whole Weapon X thing twice already, I appreciated this approach.

That’s not all to appreciate about “The Wolverine” though. It offers diversity in geography, gender and ethnicity. This is the first X-movie that doesn’t take place on U.S. soil, it also offers at least three strong female characters. Honestly though, none of these freshman actresses add much to their roles (except for maybe Fukushima), but at least none of them are American. Sorry, America, we needed a break from you.

I’ve heard from some friends who’ve seen “The Wolverine” voice their disappointment, saying it was “just okay”. I’m not sure what they were going in expecting. Maybe it was my low expectations that had me genuinely enjoying it. Maybe they thought they’d get a bigger, louder, more explosive sequel. While Mangold does provide some exciting action scenes (yes, he knows how, just check out his action comedy “Knight and Day”), the highlighted being an exciting bullet train riding sequence, this is the most character-driven story of the X-Men franchise yet. To be fair, summer moviegoing fans aren’t used to that.

 

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“The Wolverine” stumbles toward the end, as he makes his way to some ridiculous villain’s lair atop a coastal mountain. Logan winds up strapped to some mechanized contraption (yet again) and eventually engaging in a stiffly choreographed requisite end battle with a clunky CGI Silver Samurai robot. It’s a shame considering the Silver Samurai was always a cool character in the comics. It all ends up with a been-there-done-that feel, which is quite a let down considering how fresh the rest of the film feels. It’s as if the studio didn’t trust the film from staying on its intriguing, slightly existential path.

Regardless, we have Jackman getting some variety at least. In this movie, we get crispy Logan, kimono-wearing Logan, ninja-skewered Logan, and declawed Logan. There’s a nice line of toys right there. Definitely skip the 3D and stick around for the end credits (people actually STILL leave!) and you’ll see a fun teaser for next summer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, which will once again be clogged with characters. In the meantime, “The Wolverine” serves as a break from the kitchen sink approach to summer superhero sequels, offering a compelling hero’s journey for a likable character who’s far from squeaky-clean.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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