The second stand-alone film for the popular X-Men character, "The Wolverine" is a sharp, intelligent crime thriller that just happens to feature a mutant as the lead character.
Maybe it's a victim of less-than exciting marketing, or perhaps it's because the last installment was a bit of a wash, but excitement is a little tepid for the latest X-Men spin-off. That's a shame: Like recent DC outings ("The Dark Knight" and "Man of Steel"), director James Mangold has fashioned a darkly adult look at the character of Logan, the mutant with titanium bones, retractable knife claws, and the ability to heal himself (and never age.) He is another superhero character that is tortured by his gifts and needs to work them out so he can get back to saving the world.
This might sound like old hat at this point, now that we've had the angsty superhero film redone ad nauseum. The difference here is that it works better organically. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman, was a boy with incredible gifts and wonderful parents. The latest film tried to make him out to be a tortured victim who felt he had to travel the world as a vagabond to find himself. Bruce Wayne lost his mom and dad. Sad, yes, but he's rich, powerful, and a pretty decent guy. Then again, he is tortured by a past that he can't get over, so instead of therapy, he spends millions of dollars creating suits and weapons so he can fight crime and destroy his personal demons.
It's all a bit different for Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine. He was given his gifts against his will, and now must walk the earth... forever. Not only that, he can't always control his anger, which has hurt and/or killed people he cares about. He also lost the woman he loves, Jean Grey, about whom he can't stop dreaming.
For my buck, he has a right to be tortured. When the film begins, we understand why he has separated himself from society. That said, he is quickly called out of hiding by a young Japanese woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who tells Logan that someone from his past is looking to see him before he passes away. That man is Haruhiko Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) a Japanese soldier he saved during World War II. But instead of wanting to simply say "goodbye," he actually wants Logan's gift of eternal life -- and he's spent billions figuring out how to take it from him.
Logan doesn't take the bait, and finds himself not only in a war with the Japanese Yakuza mob, who want to kill Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), but also a victim of a mutant named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who has taken his ability to heal himself. Feeling honor bound, Logan promises to protect Mariko, but he must do so as a (mostly) regular man, albeit with bigger muscles.
There are many aspects of "The Wolverine" that work spectacularly, but the main one is that screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank have fashioned a story that is not only faithful to Wolverine's comic-book heritage, but also allows the story room to breathe. The characters here are well crafted and fully fleshed out. The script doesn't speed through character development to get to mind-numbing generic action sequences. In fact, it plays out very much like a crime drama, so much so that when a mutant appears and does something preternatural, you momentarily have to remind yourself that, oh yeah, I'm seeing an X-Men movie.
But that's the film's strength: It's a smart story with actual risks and moral conflict. Every main character has their arc, and their individual moments feel earned and complete.
That brings me to the action. In so many of the superhero films as of late, it's hard to look back on the film and remember the big set-piece moments. Action scenes collide against into one other with nothing to really make them stand apart. With classic Sci-fi/fantasy films you can point to any number of scenes once the movie is over -- with "Jurassic Park" for example, you could walk out of the theatre and say, "remember the scene in the kitchen?" Or, "What about the part when the T-Rex first attacks?" These are elements of what makes a classic blockbuster movie a classic. With films from this summer, on the other hand, it's hard to differentiate one action scene from the next. "Pacific Rim" had four action scenes that took place at night, in the ocean, in the rain.
With "The Wolverine," the action is not only specific to the plot, but it's diverse. It's also not overly edited or saddled with deafening sound. The scenes are exhilarating, but story driven. One sequence on a bullet train will have audiences clenching onto their armrests, while watching Fukushima battle her oppressor is dazzling fun. Sure, by the end of the film the more fantastic elements of the story will come out cementing that you are, actually, watching a superhero film. But it's so much more than that, and as a result audiences who aren't even familiar with the X-Men franchise or this particular character will still be phenomenally entertained.
Hugh Jackman is the star here, and for the gals and gays he is shirtless. A lot. But he is a commanding presence that really reflects his comic-book counterpart making him a conflicted man that becomes a true hero. Fukushima holds her own as his eventual sidekick, and she is given a rich backstory that pays off in the end. The rest of the cast is good as well and fill out their roles seriously enough that they thankfully avoid becoming cartoon caricatures.
Mangold, whose eclectic body of work makes his inclusion as a director in this franchise suspect, is so good here that studios should be on his radar for future installments. While he's directed films like "Girl, Interrupted" and "Walk the Line," this harkens back more to his 1997 drama "Cop Land." It's a "Departed"-style superhero film that, quite frankly, is exactly how these films should be done. Here's hoping he gets on board again and maybe gives another X-Men character a richly satisfying movie of his own.