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The Wolverine

Theatrical Review

20th Century Fox; 126 minutes

Director: James Mangold

Written by on July 23, 2013 

Fox seems to be at a crossroads with its X-Men franchise, gearing up for something genuinely interesting with X-Men: Days of Future Past and moving beyond what we have seen from the series thus far. In order to properly orchestrate this, they have brought one of their star players back to the big-screen in The Wolverine, an unmistakable effort to wash the flop sweat off Hugh Jackman’s Logan before sending him once more into the franchise fray. After a summer full of tedious, long-winded comic book exercises, does James Mangold’s film offer up the action zest we’ve been waiting for?

As any defender of this summer’s Pacific Rim will tell you, it rarely pays to put the demands of a whole season on a single film. The same is true here of The Wolverine, which isn’t the knockout comic-book drama that previously attached director Darren Aronofsky likely would have delivered, but still amounts to a solidly entertaining showing on its own terms. In particular, Mangold takes the time to do the one thing that neither Iron Man 3 nor Man of Steel really slowed down for; emphasizing the emotional headspace of the titular character. With a game Hugh Jackman stepping in to the role for the sixth time and building some welcome ache and nuance into Logan’s adamantium bones, The Wolverine manages to overcome some of its flaws and third act silliness to become the best showcase for this character to date.

Based off of–but not fully adapting, mind you—Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s story arc that sent the character to Japan, The Wolverine opens at the tail-end of WWII with Logan saving a Japanese soldier from the destruction of the atom bomb. This effectively etched prologue gives way to a more textured and visually astute version of the world we became familiar with in Singer and Ratner’s X-Men films. Jackman’s Logan has sequestered himself off in the Alaskan wilderness with no more than a dodgy CGI bear for company, sworn from violence and haunted by visions of Jean Grey (Famke Jansen), the woman he loved and ultimately killed in order to save the world.

This crazy-bearded hiatus is interrupted by the arrival of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a young female warrior who’s come to offer the help of Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), the same man he saved during the war, now the dying head of a vast corporate empire. Yashida’s days are numbered, and he’d really like some of the one thing Logan is so burdened by; his mutant immortality. Yakishima offers to provide Wolverine with something he’s longed for, but can’t seem to achieve; a mortal life. Being this is a comic-book film, and fans want the exact opposite of a normal existence for their superheroes, no one need worry that the rest of the film features Logan flipping pancakes or playing golf.

That’s not to say though, that the film doesn’t slow down a bit as it starts to contemplate what a mortal Wolverine would look and feel like. After an honestly exciting early action sequence featuring a battle on the top of a bullet train, Mangold eases the proceedings into a lower gear, where we can focus in on Jackman and watch long-built walls come crumbling down around the character. All of this potential drama would fare better with a bit less of the convoluted plot machinations surrounding Yashida, Yukio, and Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tai Okamoto), who’s set to inherit the old man’s considerable business. Things never stay sedate for very long, and as Logan tries to understand the twisted web he’s now a part of he also finds himself often compromising that pact of peace he made.

As a consolidated character piece threaded with a popcorn-munching action picture, The Wolverine is solid. I was consistently entertained by the momentum that Mangold maintains and the director shows real skill for speeding up and slowing down events based on necessity of what’s happening up on the screen. One of the advantages the director brings with him is the ability to frame violence in a way that both maintains the PG-13 and the brutality of the universe these characters live in. The Japanese setting really enhances the mood and drama, with beautiful locales backing up the well-staged sword fights and it’s never been a secret that the thematic addition of the bushido code perfectly fits Logan’s wandering warrior stature. Everything flows together, all of it hinged on Jackman, who is intent on dispelling any lingering doubts that he has cornered the market on this character. For the first time since stepping into the claws, he merges the vulnerability and the tough-guy machismo into exasperated, realistic weariness.

There’s a bit of a perceived gamble going on with The Wolverine that expects audiences to pick-up with an internationally pitched adventure that features a mostly Japanese cast, some of which speak in subtitles. Most won’t balk at that, but one suspects that Mangold had to make a few trade-offs to get what he wanted here, and the third act becomes the point where it’s time to pay the piper. For a good bit of this film, the more fantastical conceits of the X-Men series are left by the wayside, excluding of course a Poison Ivy-esque villainess known as The Viper. However, as the finale comes screaming towards us, Mangold finally lets go of the reigns and lets the wackiness take over. For most of us, that means enduring FX battles, revelations and oddball plot dynamics that we were just as happy to do without. A tumultuous throw-down with The Silver Samurai feels like it might have been more at home in that Dolph Lundgren Punisher movie where he fights the Yakuza.

Wonky closing chapter aside, there’s enough in The Wolverine that I find myself preferring it to all of the comic book pictures we’ve seen so far this year. Jackman is on point, reminding us of why we liked this character (and performer) in the first place. The supporting cast are equally up to the challenge, and imbue the occasionally contrived story with some welcome heft. If you stay through the credits, you’ll be treated to the hook for Fox’s next offering featuring Jackman’s Wolverine. While that should be a movie worth getting in line for, here’s a worthwhile interim adventure.

The Wolverine opens in wide release this Friday, July 26th.


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