The Wolverine is better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That doesn’t take much considering the abysmal nature of Origins, which felt the best way to make a solo outing for Hugh Jackman’s nearly invincible clawed-mutant was to surround him with a smatter of other super-powered guys and gals. There were so many that Wolverine aka Logan aka James aka Mr. Muttonchops wasn’t interesting. Wolverine, as played by Jackman and in the comics, is best when those around him are intriguing. As it’s put in the new movie, he is a Ronin; a samurai without a master. He’s most compelling as a force of nature that comes into a town cowboy style, have some fisticuffs and remain – mostly – the loner at the end.
James Mangold’s movie gets this, letting Wolverine loose in Japan after being called to the bedside of Yashida, a wealthy soldier he saved from certain death during World War II. Set after the previous X-men films, both the good and bad, our hero has sworn to never fight again after a series of tragedies. That oathe, as one would expect, doesn’t last long. Blades are soon drawn as Wolverine comes to the aide of Yashida’s daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Only problem is, Logan’s healing factor has been on the fritz after discovering that Yashida has longed to have it himself, offering the age-old Logan a change to finally rest in peace.
Not to dismiss the screenplay by Mark Bomback, Scott Frank and Christopher McQuarrie, but Mangold’s vision is what makes The Wolverine a notch above most superhero fare. It manages to be serious without begging for it (Man of Steel), while telling a simple, fun story that feels like more than mere plot-beats (Iron Man 3). Mangold (Walk the Line) manages this via mood and gorgeous cinematography by Ross Emery. Their Japan is intimate, not solely a new background for battles to ensue. Shots of snow-draped villages and seaside towns abound.That flickers of Ozu danced in my head was not to be expected. Amidst all the choreographed chaos, with the titular fellow wielding his claws on bullet-trains and against a massive metal-suited menace, there is quiet to be found here. That quiet gives the surroundings more punch.
The big-brother/little-sis relationship, a Wolverine staple, lends laughs as Logan bonds with Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an agile fighter herself who likes to call herself the hairy-guy’s bodyguard, despite her pipsqueak size in comparison. There is also emotional heft via Logan’s burgeoning relationship with Mariko, played with a quiet intensity by Okamoto. Mangola stages their gradual closeness without anything fancy, instead letting the awkwardness of having to share a Mars-themed romantic hotel room together be a stage for conversation.
Where the movie missteps is with a conspiracy dealing with whom is out to kidnap Mariko. It gets convoluted quickly, climaxing in a last act with vivid images – a man forced to his knees via dozens of arrows – and the less developed characters taking center stage. It’s always disappointing for an ending to be a movie’s worst element. The Wolverine’s drop isn’t too steep though.
The Wolverine opens wide all cross Seattle tomorrow.