‘The Wolverine’ Sinks His Claws Into A Strong Standalone Feature
Logan: That's not who I am anymore.
You have got to hand it to Hugh Jackman. He began his American film career by starring as Wolverine in Bryan Singer’s X-Men back in 2000 and he has remained loyal to the franchise. Despite proving his versatility as an actor, including his garnering of an Oscar nomination this past year for Les Miserables, Jackman has stepped into the shoes of Logan 6 times now (7, if you include next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past). The man clearly has a love for playing this character and that is expressed better than ever in The Wolverine. Taking a step away from the X-Men franchise as a whole, this film is content with telling a smaller story with focus, as it deals with the journey of just one character and what it means to have lived a life full of everlasting pain. It also happens to be set in a world of comic book characters, allowing it to still have lots of action and fun with the premise. The result makes me happy to view The Wolverine as the best comic book movie of the summer.
To be upfront, I do not tend to find Wolverine, the most popular character in the X-Men universe, to be all that interesting. Similar to Superman, Wolverine is only really interesting to me when the story surrounding him is quite strong. I will say that there is more to the character than I may be giving him credit for, given his haunted past and how he approaches his life in a cursed manner, as he wanders the earth trying to maintain or find a purpose. This film utilizes that aspect quite well, as it eschews the greater mythology established by the previous films and is content to focus on Wolverine with, at most, only 3 other mutants involved in this feature.
As the story begins, we find Logan living in isolation. He is looking rugged, full bead and all, living out of a cave in the woods, and focused on being alone and drinking to deal with his demons. Among the things Logan thinks about, there is his loss of the loves in his life, represented by Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whom he was forced to kill, in order to save many. He also has memories of being at ground zero in Hiroshima, which will come into play later, but supplies the dynamite opening sequence of the film. This is a somber look at the character and, while the film still presents an incredibly charismatic version of Logan (mainly due to Jackman’s natural screen energy), it is clear that the film wants to delve deeper into who this man is and what his near-immortality has done to him as a person.
The plot kicks into gear once Logan is invited to travel to Tokyo and say goodbye to an old friend, whom he saved back at Hiroshima. This person is Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), who is now dying, but offers Logan a gift: mortality. Logan is given the option to take away his mutant abilities and regardless of whether or not he willingly chooses to do so, it takes a large portion of the second act to an interesting place, as the character is now dealing with what it is to not heal instantly, become tired sooner, and basically feel closer to death. This portion of the film also allows Logan to grow closer to other people, represented mainly by two female characters.
One is Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter of Yashida and the source of much of the trouble that Logan gets into, as members of the Yakuza and other evil forces are attempting to kidnap her for various reasons. Logan becomes her protector and the two grow close, allowing the Wolverine to finally open up about where his life has led him. The other character is Yukio (Rila Fukushima), the red-haired female warrior, who shares a bond with Mariko, but is an admirer of the Wolverine, and is happy to team up with him when the time comes. Both actresses are making their cinematic debuts, but I was pleased by both performances. We learn just enough about both and they fit into this world that The Wolverine presents.
This world, in general, was nicely portrayed. With some of the filming having taken place in Japan, a great look to the film throughout, and the utilization of a few story beats from the classic Wolverine story-arc written and developed by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, the film benefits greatly from having this focus, while also diversifying the landscape from previous X-Men movies. Screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank (with an original draft by Christopher McQuarrie) have done a good job of putting together the type of story that does justice to Wolverine, as well as finding a way to present something new, without focusing on tying it into the other entries in this franchise. Director James Mangold has done a fine job of going into this direction for Wolverine, with the film following the path of a wandering samurai story. The term “ronin” is brought up several times, which refers to a samurai without a master, and that is what we get in this film; the story of one man on an endless journey, which is a good direction to take other X-Men films.
An issue I have had with all of the X-Men films, up until now (regardless of how much I enjoy X2 and X-Men: First Class), is that each one felt the need to jam tons of mutants into the story and try to find a balance between them all, while also establishing threads that will lead to future installments. The Wolverine is very happy with being a standalone film and it is quite freeing to see that approach in action. Hopefully other X-Men can have their own films or at least smaller character groupings can have these sort of smaller-scale stories (which will have to come after X-Men: Days of Future Past, as it stars everyone), because it really did work for me in finding a lot to grasp onto with the character of Wolverine.
All of that said and I have not even spoken up much about the fun that is had in this film. Yes, we see a lot of drama involving Logan’s struggles, but the film does not forget that it’s a comic book movie and it finds that balance in tone quite well. The movie has fun, with Jackman having moments where he is either super bad ass or comfortable with making some fun of himself. There are campy elements that go over well, because the film does not wink at the audience over these things and also takes other aspects in this low-key story fairly seriously. The Wolverine has more on its mind than just showing Logan’s berserker rage take over, but it still has all of the elements needed to make a fine summer action movie.
The actual action we see in this movie is almost inconsequential. Ok, I take some of that back, there are scenes closer to the middle of this movie, which are pretty awesome to watch. A fight set on a bullet train (recalling the first Mission: Impossible film, but not in a bad way) and a nighttime sword fight bathed in moonlight are particular highlights. More of what I am referring to as “obligatory” is the third act action finale, which more or less comes with the territory of these kinds of films, but practically feels like a bit of a different movie, given how the stakes have grown from personal to something much grander and more CGI laden. That said, I am willing to forgive this finale, because I was still into where the story was going and the fights and action sequences looked really good. We see Logan in action and he is just as feral a fighter as always. It does not hurt that the violence really leaves an impact. Lots of bloodshed goes down in this hard PG-13 film, and not even the subtle 3D conversion can obscure the look of the blood shown in this film (it doesn’t hurt that the needless 3D in no way darkened the film, for whatever that piece of info is worth).
Given that the last cinematic outing for Wolverine was not met with the most positive reception, I really hope that fans of the character embrace this more focused film. One can practically say that this is the definitive Wolverine movie, given that the title is “The Wolverine”. Regardless, I really enjoyed this film. It hits all the beats that I would hope for in a standalone X-Men film and does not feel weighed down by the same problems that irritate me in the others. It certainly has the spirit of a B-movie and is not without its flaws, but it is both low-key and fun. Something I have not emphasized enough is Jackman, who really shines here in the role that brought him stardom. The man loves this character and really does his best to bring out new depth in him. If people can get on board with a more thought out Wolverine that applies action when needed (also not mentioned until now: ninja fights!), then they should be able to sink their claws into this new film with aplomb.
Logan: A lot of people have tried to kill me... and I'm still here.
[Note: Stay until midway through the credits.]