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You would think making a solo adventure movie starring Wolverine, arguably the most popular Marvel Comics character of all time (though I’m sure Spider-Man could give him a run for his money) wouldn’t be so difficult. Then again, you might not have seen Gavin Hood’s atrocious “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”. Based on the popular 1980s limited series comic book by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, James Mangold’s “The Wolverine” continues to explore the history of its titular character, while attempting to bridge the gap between Brett Ratner’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” and Bryan Singer’s return to the “X” universe in the upcoming “X-Men: Days of Future Past”. Not that “The Wolverine” needs those two movies to make sense, but it helps to know what’s come before.
The film picks up with Logan aka Wolverine (Jackman) sleeping in the woods and having sexy dreams about Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, who shows up throughout the movie in a handful of sequences) that always seems to end bloody. He’s a grizzled, broken, and lost animal (in body and mind), tortured by his past and indifferent to his future. His only buddy is a bear, and they spend their time marking their territory in the woods. He only shows up in town for batteries, but that’s when a spunky red-haired Yukio (Rila Fukushima) spots him and informs him that a Japanese soldier whose life he saved during WWII is dying, and the man wants to pay Logan back. Chased by the cops after a bar incident (what is the deal with Logan and bar incidents involving redneck types?), Logan skedaddles to Japan.
Logan reunites with a dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), the richest man in Japan, who claims he and his mysterious scientist/doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova) have found a way to take away Logan’s mortality. Now Logan can get rid of that bothersome regenerative mutant power that’s become the bane of his existence. Except, well, Logan says No. Which is odd. I thought the whole point was that he wants a mortal existence? Doesn’t he spend all his dreams with Jean Grey saying he wants to join her in the afterlife? But hey, he’s a complicated man, and it’s about to get more complicated. After a night at the Yashida compound, Logan wakes up to discover that he’s not healing nearly as fast as he once did, and bullets now hurt. Like, really, really hurt. He starts hobbling around like a gimp hurt.
That’s not good, especially since he sort of falls for Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who happens to already be engaged to some political douche. Mariko’s dad Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) is up to no good and doesn’t seem to be particularly discreet about it, and a bunch of Yakuza and ninja types are all up in everyone’s bidness, especially when it comes to Mariko. Featuring a script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank (with some script doctoring by the prolific Christopher McQuarrie), “The Wolverine” is probably your most accessible film to the character yet. The Logan we see here is much more human than even he wants to admit. Despite his powers and his brooding, the fact is, ol Logan really does want to live. He just needs a reason.
In order to jack up the danger level for the fiery Canucklehead, Mangold and company have made the decision to strip him of his one major fallback — his mutant healing ability. This little twist is more than enough to turn what could have been a pretty standard superhero film into a surprisingly existential drama, with doses of heavy action thrown in there. There is nice chemistry between Jackman and the ridiculously pretty Tao Okamoto, though I was a little disappointed Fukushima’s Yukio disappears for a big chunk of the film’s middle section. With her red hair and renegade personality, Yukio easily overshadows both Okamoto and Khodchenkova. That is, when she’s onscreen. Like I said, there are whole chunks where she disappears.
“The Wolverine” is set in the world of the “X-Men” movies, where mutants exist and are acknowledged, but don’t expect crazy mutant showdowns. There are a couple of other people with mutant powers about, but for the most part Mangold has crafted the most down-to-Earth comic book movie you could probably do when your hero has adamantium bones and claws coming out of his knuckles. Mangold is an excellent director, and he’s one of my favorites, but he’s never been known as someone with the groundbreaking visual stylings of, say, a Christopher Nolan or Zack Snyder. “The Wolverine” is excellently filmed and the action scenes are always good (the bullet train fight in particular is inspired), but my jaw was never on the floor. The 3D is borderline atrocious, and its one saving grace may be the train sequence, but that’s 5 minutes in a 2-hour film. If you have the option, pick the 2D showing.
“The Wolverine” is rated PG-13, and besides a couple of gunshot wounds, it’s a surprisingly bloodless movie. Wolverine’s claws slash and dices throughout the film, but you rarely see the results of his ferocity. Sorry, but this isn’t the bloody Wolverine movie you’ve been waiting for, kids, though in recent interviews, director James Mangold has mentioned a possible R or Unrated Director’s Cut for the DVD/Blu-ray. At times the film is so bloodless it borders on the comical, especially since everyone is shooting, stabbing, or getting filled with arrows. In fact, I think most of the bloodletting comes from Wolverine himself, who gets shot, stabbed, sliced, and skewered multiple times throughout the movie. It’s a damn good thing Jackman is in great shape for the role.
One thing I should mention: we never really get the Logan vs. The Hand fight that we were promised. Oh, there is something that looks like a Logan vs. The Hand fight, but it ends way too quickly and just wasn’t the slam-bang, balls-out action sequence I was expecting. In fact, it really was a huge disappointment, though I get it, they had to transition to the finale. Even so, where the hell did all the ninjas go? Fortunately, there is enough good parts of “The Wolverine” that I’m willing to forgive this major fumbling of the ball on Mangold’s part. “The Wolverine” can easily be viewed as a standalone film (though again, it helps if you know who Jean Grey is), and is easily the best Wolverine movie since Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men”.
(Note: Stay after the credits for a crowd pleasing teaser.)
James Mangold (director) / Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, Christopher McQuarrie (screenplay)
CAST: Hugh Jackman … Logan / Wolverine
Rila Fukushima … Yukio
Svetlana Khodchenkova … Viper
Will Yun Lee … Kenuichio Harada
Famke Janssen … Jean Grey
Tao Okamoto … Mariko Yashida
Hiroyuki Sanada … Shingen Yashida
Hal Yamanouchi … Yashida