This is more like it.
The last time Wolverine got his own solo film, the result was “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” a film generally considered to be wholly terrible. But, the character still has a ton of mileage and just as much goodwill built up in the fanbase, so it makes sense to take another stab at the solitary adventures of comicdom’s favorite mutant.
I don’t want to say that “The Wolverine” is as good as “X-Men Origins” was bad (if only because it’s really, really bad), but it often feels like a two hour apology for all the things that other film did poorly and really tries hard to give the character his due. Overall, I’d say, it succeeds as such.
Drawing from the storylines by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller in the early ’80s, “The Wolverine” often feels more like a pulpy samurai film than a colorful comic book movie. In it, we find Logan (Hugh Jackman, reprising the role for the sixth time) is something of a drifter. An indeterminate amount of time has passed since the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand” (wherein we last saw him killing Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to stop her from potentially destroying the world) and he’s made a vow to never resort to violence for any reason.
A man with a past like Logan has can’t run forever, though, and he’s soon drawn to Tokyo at the behest of a man who believes he is in Logan’s debt. During World War II, Logan was a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp. When the bomb is dropped nearby on Nagasaki, Logan prevents Yashida from joining the other officers in committing seppuku and shields him from the blast, saving his life. Now, decades later, the dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) wants to “thank” Logan for saving his life, claiming he has a way to remove the mutant healing factor that essentially makes him immortal. Logan’s inability to die is a curse, Yashida says, and it’s time his decades-long struggle came to an end.
That, of course, is just the tip of the iceburg as there’s more going on, what with attempted assassinations and such, but it all sets in motion a story that has Logan going on the run and attempting to guard the life of Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), while also adjusting to his healing factor being drained from him.
I said before that this more resembles a samurai film, and it’s obvious that’s where director James Mangold and writers Michael Bombak and Scott Frank (with an assist from the great Christopher McQuarrie) drew from. In fact, it almost feels like that was a greater source of inspiration than comics, as it isn’t until the film’s finale that this really begins to resemble any of its comic book movie contemporaries. It may feature a mutant with claws that pop out of his knuckles, but this stays remarkably grounded, all things considered, for the majority of its runtime.
I especially appreciate that this is its own, contained story, though. Knowledge of previous events is helpful, but also not wholly necessary, and the arc that Logan undergoes in the film feels well-rounded enough even though the ending is open-ended (though also not a cliffhanger). This isn’t a character study, by any means, but the script makes a valiant effort at trying to get us inside the head of this man who is often at war with his feral impulses, but also wants some sense of permanence and normalcy, the latter of which is nigh impossible for someone in his station.
It also helps that Jackman is still every bit as invested in the character as he’s ever been. There’s an obvious and tangible affection he has for Wolverine, and it comes through in every moment he gives us. Jackman buys into the reality of who this character is, what he’s done and the weight that comes with all of that and translates it in a way that’s better than perhaps is deserved for this sort of thing. I don’t know how much longer Jackman will be able to reprise the role, but whoever picks up in his place will definitely have their work cut out for them. Not bad for a guy who was a last minute replacement in the first “X-Men” movie.
What surprised me the most, though, was just how violent this thing is. “Oh, you mean a movie about a guy who has anger issues and knives for fists is violent? You don’t say.” Be that as it may, this went much further than even I anticipated. There’s almost no blood or actual gore to speak of, but the number of stabbings, slicings and on-screen deaths seen here is greater than anything I’ve seen in any PG-13 movie before. I’m not sure it merits a true R rating, but this is way more harsh than I’d say most are expecting, especially for a comic book movie. Once again, the MPAA ratings board feels useless.
That said, violent as it is, Mangold gives us far and away the best action scenes yet in any “X-Men” film, or really most of its comic book movie brethren. It’s shot clean and wide and while the visceral nature is surprising, it’s fitting for the character. Wolverine has always been a character who’s felt somewhat tamed on-screen (save for the mansion raid in the second “X-Men” film) and so having him let loose like this feels like we’re at last seeing what he’s really made of.
I only have a couple issues here, thankfully, and none of them really deflate the film in any significant way. Firstly, the film’s finale feels a little too, well, comic book-y. An odd complaint, I know, but the vast majority of “The Wolverine” seems to go out of its way to feel separate and toned down from typical comic book movie fare. So once you’re reminded that this is, in fact, still a movie about mutants and such it feels a little jarring. Also, the female characters are drastically underwritten (which is a shame, as there’s some really interesting stuff to be mined here with Mariko and her friend, Yukio), and the actress playing Viper (the most overtly comic book-y character in the whole movie) is just plain awful.
Otherwise, this was really fun movie that does a lot of justice to the legacy of Wolverine and shows that there’s still some interesting things to be done with both the character and the X-Men universe at large.
I’m also glad to see Mangold continue to do solid work as I’ve long been a supporter of his. (Seriously, go rent “Cop Land” this weekend and thank me later.) I’ll forever lament what might’ve been had Darren Aronofsky stayed on-board as director, but Mangold runs a tight ship here and provides one of the more distinct (if low-key) Marvel films that have come along. Here’s hoping he gets a well-deserved boost from this.