The Wolverine: Review #2

WOLVERINE

Well, it’s looking like Hugh Jackman and Robert Downey Jr are competing to see who can play the same character in the most films. By my count, Jackman is in the lead with seven appearances as Wolverine, if you include cameos and upcoming projects. Downey Jr is sitting at six with Iron Man. Yes, I suppose you could include Patrick Stewart in the mix as Professor Charles Xavier, but let’s not muddy the waters here. Jackman and Downey Jr are the big guns. They’re huge reasons why people flock to these films, including the newest one, The Wolverine.

And as I thought about that preamble and how Iron Man is starting to feel a little tired under the guidance of Robert Downey Jr, my opinion on the matter quickly changed. The fact that these guys have dedicated themselves to these characters in such a way is actually a good thing. In a time of reboots and artistic revolving doors it’s refreshing to see some consistency with these actors and their alter egos. It’s good for their respected cinematic universes and provides a sense of legitimacy to each project. The actors have grown to not simply play the characters, but be the characters.

This quality is what grounds The Wolverine and gives it, as stated above, a sense of legitimacy. Forget that he’s too tall to play the character or that he doesn’t wear any of his trademark costumes from the comics; those are complaints for past films. With his ability to be a convincing killing machine and wounded soul simultaneously, Jackman’s a high point of this admirable comic book adaptation.

The Wolverine plays out like an old school action flick with modern super hero aspects thrown in. Much of it actually feels like the James Bond films of old. It’s a refreshing change of pace for a super hero film to be set in a foreign country. Many scenes involving the Japanese cityscape and countryside are shot beautifully. This, along with the Japanese dialogue with English subtitles and a cast including Japanese and Southeast Asian actors, adds to an authenticity that’s fairly rare in this genre.

Wolverine, or Logan, ends up in Japan following an encounter with the scarlet-haired Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who helps him in a bar fight. She’s a little firecracker who will remind you of an anime character. She’s mildly annoying at first, and Fukushima’s acting skills aren’t fantastic, but she’ll definitely grow on you. Logan’s been wondering aimlessly in the Canadian wilderness following the events of X-Men: The Last Stand in which he was forced to kill the love of his life, Jean Grey. The X-Men have disbanded and he’s now plagued by nightmares of Jean and has reverted to a kind of Neanderthal, all long, scraggly hair and such. It’s probably a good thing for him that Yukio is there to bring him to Japan to see Yashida, the CEO of a huge technology corporation who’s dying of cancer. Logan saved Yashida’s life in World War II and now he wants to repay him.

In Japan, Logan meets Yashida’s suspicious looking son, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko, played by the gorgeous model and newcomer to acting, Tao Okamoto. It’s a tragedy for Logan to have to outlive the people he loves. The fact that he’s virtually immortal is just salt on the wound. So, it’s not a surprise when Yashida proposes to take away this immortality as a gift rather than a burden. But he doesn’t just want to spare Logan several lifetime’s worth of emotional torment; he wants the immortality for himself. Logan refuses this eerie power transplant.

The action starts as Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), an over-the-top femme fetale with a snake-like tongue and toxic touch, injects Logan with a parasite that damages his healing factor. Furthermore, Logan is informed that Yashida has died. At his funeral, Mariko is kidnapped by Yakuza assassins. With the help of Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee), an archer and associate of Yashida, Logan saves Mariko. They’re further pursued by the Yakuza who’re after Mariko for reasons we’ll learn in time. Harada’s isn’t completely loyal to Logan, though. He’s working with Viper to capture the Canadian mutant, again, for reasons we’ll learn in time. The plot seems like it’s going to get out of hand, but it contains just enough layers to remain interesting without becoming convoluted.

There’re a few mildly entertaining set pieces, one involving Logan battling a Yakuza assassin on the roof of a bullet train going at top speed through Tokyo and another that sees him fight the Silver Samurai, one of the film’s antagonists, in a research facility. But the action is the most exciting when Logan or Yukio engage in combat with the assassins on even ground sans the speeding trains and gigantic suits of armor. The choreography is far from advanced, but it’s still good fun.

The movie does often struggle to maintain its realistic tone. Marco Beltrami’s score is, at times, overly theatrical, reminding one of old Dracula films near the end. The sound effects are also overwhelming; I’m quite sure stabbing somebody with claws wouldn’t sound so thunderous. And Viper, alluring at the start, becomes an annoying distraction whose powers and comic nastiness feel out of place here.

But at the core of the film is a man struggling with his own immortality. It raises some important questions about this hypothetical attribute. Many of us fantasize about the prospect of never dying, but could we handle the amount of pain that consumes Logan on a daily basis? Wouldn’t it be torture to have killed the woman you love and have to live with that for eternity? I’m glad the film makers took Logan down this very important path. It’s a huge part of his character.

It’s just sad knowing that director Darren Aronofsky left the project in its infancy. Not to say James Mangold is a bad director, but for all his digging into the mind of the Wolverine, Aronofsky would have dug further. He would have tortured Logan more, and made the audience feel his pain in a way Mangold could not. He would have amplified the existential nature of the character and his story while making it grittier and even messier.

That would happen in a perfect world. But Mangold is no amateur. In an unusual change for a super hero film he’s crafted a deliberately paced, smaller scale feature that focuses on a stand-alone adventure rather than earth threatening epic. It also leads into the next X-Men film quite nicely, but I won’t spoil the inter credits scene. It’s fine summer viewing that unfortunately unravels in the last 15 minutes as it obeys the rules of generic action films, but it’s still one of the best blockbusters of the year.

Grade: B

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