Director : James Mangold
Screenplay : Mark Bomback and Scott Frank (based on the comic series Wolverine by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Hugh Jackman (Logan), Tao Okamoto (Mariko), Rila Fukushima (Yukio), Hiroyuki Sanada (Shingen), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Viper), Brian Tee (Noburo), Hal Yamanouchi (Yashida), Will Yun Lee (Harada), Ken Yamamura (Young Yashida), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Nobutaka Aoyagi (Security), Seiji Funamoto (Servant), Shinji Ikefuji (Pock-Face), Qyoko Kudo (Aya)
There is a reason that Hugh Jackman, despite having probably the most varied and successful career of any working actor today (Oscar nomination! Tony Award! People’s Sexiest Man Alive!), continues to return to John Logan, the nearly indestructible mutant with retractable adamantium claws known as “Wolverine”: The character continues to intrigue. With his heady mix of justice and existential identity crisis (he is, after all, more than 200 years old and has witnessed firsthand some of the worst humanity has to offer), Wolverine is a particularly memorable comic book hero, both Shakespearean in the depths of his resentment and mythical in his inability to be part of the human race.
The Wolverine marks the fifth feature-length outing for Jackman in the role (sixth if you count his brief cameo in X-Men: First Class), and unlike 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this film has no intention of digging up backstory or retelling an origin narrative. Rather, it is a kind of stand-alone adventure, nestled between the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and the next X-Men film that is hinted at during the closing credits (natch). The screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank draws heavily from the four-issue 1982 comic book series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, although one doesn’t need to be an X-Men-phile to follow along with the action. As long as you understand the basics of Wolverine’s character and the idea that he exists in a world in which human beings live alongside mutants with various abilities, you’re good to go.
The film opens decades in the past with Wolverine locked in an underground cell in Nagasaki just before the bomb falls. He saves the life of Yashida, a Japanese soldier who had shown him mercy, a decision that returns to him 50 years later when that soldier, now a gazillionaire technology mogul at the edge of death, seeks him out for reasons that at first seem generous, but later take on a more sinister tone. It turns out that Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) wants to make a trade with Wolverine: He had can return him to human status in exchange for his immortality. The fact that this plan involves Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a vicious and curvaceous female mutant who can spit poison and peel off her own skin like a snake, is the first sign that it might not be such a good idea, and Wolverine wisely rejects it, which puts him in the crosshairs of a multi-generational family struggle that involves Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), his embittered son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), and a ninja archer named Harada (Will Yun Lee) whose allegiances seem to shift in every scene.
The Japanese setting for The Wolverine gives it a distinct flavor that separates it from the previous X-Men films while also providing a context in which Wolverine can grow and come to grips with his own existence (he is compared with ronin, masterless samurai). Being set in Japan also provides the film with a litany of foes and allies, the former including large groups of ninja warriors and gun-toting yakuza thugs and the latter including Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a magenta-haired assassin whose small stature and schoolgirl outfits belie her skills with a sword and her mutant ability to see the future. At times the film feels a bit too much like an Asian travelogue with a familiar mutant in the foreground, but the filmmakers find consistently interesting ways to integrate Wolverine into his environment, which often involves pitting his superhuman strength against ancient forms of martial arts (we see this most evocatively in a scene in which Wolverine is shot again and again and again in the back by ninjas with poisoned arrows attached to ropes, a scene that some have compared to the climax of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood).
Director James Mangold, who is best known for dramas like Girl, Interrupted (1999) and Walk the Line (2005), but has also dabbled in all kinds of genre fare including the psychological thriller (2003’s Identity), the western (2007’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma), and the comedic action film (2010’s Knight and Day), finds a workable balance between Wolverine’s identity issues and the CGI mayhem expected of any comic book adaptation. The film’s best sequences are arguably its most restrained, particularly near the beginning where we find Wolverine living a grizzled nomad’s existence in the snowy mountains of Alaska, having renounced any pretenses of superheroism. Tormented by dreams of his deceased lover Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Wolverine is a genuinely haunted soul, albeit one who is tempted to come out of hiding to mete out some justice when needed. Once lured back to Japan, Wolverine becomes a more familiar reluctant hero, and Mangold stages the big action setpieces with enough flash to stand out from the rest of the summer movie onslaught (a battle with a yakuza atop a bullet train is particularly memorable, and a gruesome sequence in which Wolverine performs self-surgery on his own heart is a wonderfully grisly shocker). That the film sags a bit toward the end with an overheated climax that starts to feel a bit silly isn’t enough to detract from its overall enjoyment or diminish the desire to see Jackman pull out those claws once again.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © 20th Century Fox