Loosely based—very loosely based—on the early story arc from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s eponymous comic, The Wolverine had several strong advantages going for it before 20th Century FOX settled on a director: one of Marvel’s most popular and enduring mutants, the return of Hugh Jackman for a sixth time in a role he owns, and one of the richer story arcs tied to the character’s many decades of adventures from the page panels. (Plus, it couldn’t possibly be worse than X-Men Origins: Wolverine.) As much as director James Mangold’s cinematic interpretation had going for it prior to pre-production, it’s a pity it only seldom succeeds—largely due to the decisions made way back before Darren Aronofsky was attached to helm.
Taking place some number of years after the fallout from the events of 2006’s bald-faced lie of a movie title X-Men: The Last Stand, audiences find Logan (Jackman) in self-imposed exile, guilt-stricken from the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, haunting and cock-teasing him in his dreams). He’s only pulled back into civilization due to his need to avenge the death of a Pleistocene-sized bear, illegally killed by that most dastardly of Hollywood stock character—the Mean Redneck. (Though, honestly, given how bad the ursine CGI was, its death probably qualified as a mercy killing.) Arriving in time to help the invincible superhero beat up a bar full of hapless plaid-clads is mysterious Japanese fighter/emissary Yukio (Rila Fukushima). Her employer, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), happens to be a very powerful CEO, whom Logan rescued from the atomic blast in Hiroshima 60-odd years ago. Yashida is nearing the end of his days and insists on paying his life’s debt to Logan—by relieving the superhero of his immortality.
Though not part of the original comic, it’s nevertheless an intriguing element to explore with the character—a tragic Wagner-esque caveat to the power that makes him otherwise fearless. Between this classic theme and the dependable fish-out-of-water tale (the Westerner in Japan), there’s an adamantium-coated skeleton of a script here, but it’s so fitfully delivered that it’s difficult to stay interested between the Yakuza-dicing set pieces. Despite a scant number of intimate moments where the protagonist is wearing his shirt, The Wolverine, even at 126 minutes, feels rushed. It’s as though Mangold himself became exhausted knowing he had to reach the Big Final Action Sequence (BFAS). (If this particular 10 minutes of BFAS feels eye-rollingly familiar, it’s because the audience has already seen it in virtually every other superhero film of the last five years.)
But beyond the aforementioned advantages this film enjoyed at the outset, Mangold deserves credit for exercising some restraint within a shared universe populated with over 50 years of established science fiction and magic. The fan-servicing cameos are kept to a bare minimum, and his lens never strays far from Jackman. This particular compliment might read as faint praise, but compared to the mutant-a-thon of the last film, it’s downright refreshing: Gavin Hood’s supposedly Logan-centric film tossed wave after wave of distraction in the form of Sabretooth, Silver Fox, Maverick, Deadpool, Wraith, Gambit, Cyclops, the Blob, etc.—as well as an additional truckload on non-superpowered cast members—making its title feel at times like the most Wolverine-flavored aspect of the entire affair.
And although it barely merits mention at this point, given his now half-dozen (with another underway!) appearances as Wolverine, Jackman again proves why there’s no passing the baton to another actor while he’s still willing and able to play the role. As far as comic book film adaptations go, only Robert Downey Jr. has trumped Jackman for effective interpretation of a heroic role. Whereas Downey Jr. transformed Tony Stark from a somber, morose alcoholic to a breezy, sarcastic, high-functioning alcoholic, Jackman’s Logan has come a long way from rage-filled feral scrapper to a man who wears a scowl as a mask to hide centuries of suffering. In both cases, it’s difficult to argue the makeover doesn’t make for a better silver screen incarnation.
As far as the other cast, the performances service the proceedings well—particularly Fukushima as the Comic Con Booth Babe siren, who goes all-in on the high-flying action. And, hell—go ahead and give Mangold and the studio another point for actually casting primarily Japanese actors in a film set mainly in Japan. Taken as a whole, The Wolverine is nearly as hit-and-miss as the rest of Mangold’s filmography: it ain’t Cop Land or his first-rate remake of 3:10 to Yuma, but nor is it Knight and Day or Kate & Leopold. However, given the enviable headstart this movie had at its greenlight, viewers may be disappointed they couldn’t do better than two steps forward, one step back.
Director: James Mangold
Writers: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Toa Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada
Release Date: July 26, 2013