Everybody loves Hugh Jackman. I mean, there’s probably not a reasonable person on the planet who could find fault with him, which is not something you can say about most public figures. His regular jaunts into showtune-singing territory endear him to the soccer moms and musical theatre nerds, and his anchoring role in the X-Men universe ensure that anyone who enjoys the odd comic book or likes to line-up for midnight shows of superhero movies will always have a soft spot in their heart for him (also, Wolverine’s penchant for shirtlessness helps to widen that demographic even more). That’s why making him the centre of his own set of films separate from those other wildly popular mutants was a pretty safe bet.
Unfortunately, the first spin-off film X-Men Origins: Wolverine was uneven at best, truncating the character’s long history into a series of mechanical-feeling action sequences that added nothing substantial to the universe’s bigger picture. The Wolverine fares better, offering a connection to the X-Men world as well as a mildly compelling standalone story…yet it still doesn’t quite hit the mark the way that fans of the series will be hoping for.
In this installment, we find Logan (Jackman) living in a cave in the Alaskan wilderness, still reeling from having put Jean Grey out of her murdering misery in X-Men: The Last Stand. He’s crippled by grief and guilt, declaring to a ghostly Jean who continually haunts his dreams that he’s out of the hero business for good, vowing to never hurt anyone again.
Unfortunately for this new life mission, a wild young woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) tracks him down and convinces him to return with her to Japan to honour the deathbed request of Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a man who Logan saved during World War II. When he arrives however, it seems that Yashida is only interested in acquiring Logan’s gift of immortality and when Yashida’s granddaughter (Tao Okamoto) is kidnapped, the old Wolverine we know and love is forced to emerge both in pursuit of her and also to save himself from total annihiliation.
The film really shines during its action sequences which are both inventive and a hell of a lot of fun to watch. Wolverine taking on a troupe of relentless Yakuza thugs as well as a cavalcade of acrobatic ninjas is a weird but decidely amusing sidestep from what audiences have come to expect from these types of films.
It also helps that Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) infuses the film with a darkness that echoes Logan’s headspace. Here he’s presented as more tortured warrior than infallible action hero and it gives the whole film a grounding effect that a movie about a man who grows claws and cannot be killed shouldn’t have.
Where the film falters is mainly in its pacing and the need to shoehorn in an awkward-feeling romance that one can only assume the studio opted to include to placate the “chick demographic” which is strange because the fact that Wolverine has his shirt off for a good 70% of the film’s running-time could have accomplished this all on its own.
It also doesn’t help that the family-friendly rating makes it difficult to truly delve into the blackness of the character’s soul, or even give us a little good, old-fashioned gore flying off the hundreds of people Wolverine hacks and slashes to death in the film. A little more grit would have gone a long way to make this bleaker version of everyone’s favourite X-Man feel a little less clawless.
Oh, and make sure to stay through the credits for a fun surprise!
The Wolverine opens on Friday, July 26.
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