I can confidently say that The Wolverine marks a significant improvement over the last Wolverine solo outing, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Although, as Aren noted when I said this, it doesn’t take much to achieve that. Even as it devolves into predictability, The Wolverine is a satisfying entertainment with some lovely visuals.
The film — directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma), who was recruited after Darren Aronofsky pulled out of the project in 2011 — adapts the classic Chris Claremont/Frank Miller miniseries in which Logan journeys to Japan. This is one of the most beloved Wolverine stories from the comic books and it gives Logan — played once again by Hugh Jackman — a chance to shine without having to share the screen with tons of other, more familiar supporting X-characters (one of Origins many sins was being over-stuffed). It’s also a good choice because of the way its classic fish-out-of-water scenario focuses audience identification with the protagonist, while also giving him opportunities to grow and learn more about himself.
After an excellent prologue in Nagasaki, Japan on the morning the second atomic bomb was dropped in World War II, the film moves to the northern Canadian wilderness. Some time after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Wolverine a.k.a. Logan is living feral in the woods and pining for his lost love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whom he was forced to kill in the earlier film. The movie utilizes Jean in a series of dreams that give us further access to Logan’s psyche, but ultimately her presence mostly serves to offer audiences another familiar face. Aside from these visions from the past, The Wolverine does serve as a fairly stand alone film. Knowledge of the other X-Men films or the character from the comics is helpful, but not necessary to enjoyment.
Soon enough, a mysterious young woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) arrives and after demonstrating her skill with a sword, invites Wolverine to accompany her to Japan to meet with a figure from Wolverine’s past. This turns out to be the dying Mr. Yashida, whom Logan had saved from death that one fateful morning in Nagasaki. In the intervening decades, Yashida has risen to become the head of a massive industrial conglomerate in Japan. Logan’s seeming immortality has obsessed Yashida since his dramatic salvation during the war, and he wishes to not only thank Logan for saving his life all those years ago, but also to offer Logan what he frames as a gift: mortality.
Although tempted due to his suffering, Logan refuses the offer, but soon finds that gift may have been thrust upon him without his consent as he finds his healing factor fading, leaving him more vulnerable to attacks. This is of course inconvenient as he is plunged into a web of intrigue, involving ninjas, Yakuza, and of course, other mutants. Logan finds himself the protector of Yashida’s daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), and engaged in a series of battles, including a memorable one on a speeding bullet train.
Stripping Wolverine of his healing factor is a nice touch (echoes of Peter Parker’s loss of powers in Spider-man 2), raising the stakes without having to raise the level of destruction; though audiences must know that any real danger is subordinated to the demands of the X-Men franchise machine and the conventions of the genre. Still, the film’s modest scale is refreshing after a summer of seeing destruction unleashed upon cities on a massive scale in films such as Man of Steel or Pacific Rim (both of which I did enjoy). The scale suits the film’s attempted focus on a single character, and gestures in the direction of character development.
Mangold’s film particularly shines in crafting memorable sequences grafting the familiar (at least to Hollywood audiences) imagery of Wolverine’s mutant icon to the imagery of various Japanese genre films. Wolverine fights hordes of ninjas in a snow covered village and battles vicious Yakuza thugs in a chaotic urban rumble. These set ups could have come from a number of classic Japanese genre films, such as the Yakuza classic, Battles without Honour or Humanity, or Lady Snowblood (evoked even more successfully in Kill Bill: Vol. 1). Thus, the film’s simple pleasures are mostly on the level of image.
While The Wolverine mostly looks great, at other times the camerawork and character design (particularly the mutant enemy Viper) seems to come from a lower rung on the superhero hierarchy. It almost makes me wish that they had been even more modest in budget and forced to abandon the gloss of Hollywood. There is no question that Hugh Jackman is a talented actor and that he brings everything he’s got to his portrayal of Logan, but I’m not sure the rest of the film earns his dedication. The story vacillates between setting up Wolverine’s personal journey and keeping the generic conflict going (the mostly standalone film does feature a mid-credit set up for the next X-Men film, Days of Future Past). For all the film’s success, it never quite lives up to the potential it has.
Overall I feel The Wolverine is a diverting summer action film that falls short of greatness. Nonetheless, after six films of mutant drama, The Wolverine might actually rank as my second favourite in the series (only 2002’s X2: X-Men United is an undisputed success in my book). So, take my criticisms with a grain of salt; while the film works well as a standalone entry, it’s hardly a throwaway piece of the X-Men series and fans can rejoice.
6 out of 10
The Wolverine (USA, 2013)
Directed by James Mangold; screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank; story by Christopher McQuarrie based on the Marvel Comics mini-series by Chris Claremont & Frank Miller; starring Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Hal Yamamouchi and Famke Janssen.