Superhero fans in Fresno and anywhere else in the world will know that these characters come in all shapes and sizes and can be utilized for many more unconventional types of stories than most of us are used to. With the onslaught of superhero films that we have seen since the early 2000s, it is so great to now see Hollywood beginning to show at least a little bit more creativity in these films than just the typical hero stops the villain from taking over the world type of story. One of the textbooks examples of that is the film this examiner is reviewing today…The Wolverine.
The X-Men universe is one of the broadest and most diversifying superhero worlds out there. There is seemingly no limit to how many different mutant and non-mutant characters inhabit that world and every one of them has some sort of back story that is fascinating to learn about, but perhaps no character in the franchise is more fascinating that the most popular X-Man of them all, James Howlett, a.k.a. Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine.
The X-Men film series may be the longest sustained film continuity in the genre without resorting to a major reboot, starting with the first X-Men in 2000, X2: X-Men United in 2003, X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, X-Men Origins: Wolverine in 2009, and X-Men: First Class in 2011. Not all of these films have been of equal quality, but the one constant they all have had was the consistently iconic portrayal of everyone’s favorite mutant by Hugh Jackman. Known only for Australian musical theater before making his big screen debut in the original film, Jackman was a totally unexpected choice by fans originally, but after the film came out there wasn’t a single other actor in the world that we could possibly imagine in that role, and now, with The Wolverine marking his sixth performance in a role as the character (counting the brief-but-classic cameo he made in X-Men: First Class), Jackman is up there with the likes of Christopher Reeve and Robert Downey, Jr. as one of the the greatest portrayals ever of a comic book superhero.
But with this latest installment in the X-Men film series, it was decided to go for a drastic change of pace. The Wolverine is, as the title suggests, a stand alone spin off focusing solely on Wolverine and cutting out all of the other X-Men. But unlike the convoluted, mutant-packed mess of a prequel that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this film instead takes place after the end of the third film in the original trilogy and tells a far more focused story line that concentrates on the man himself as he learns more about himself and strives to find peace as a modern day ronin, a samurai without a master.
The film is based on a classic four-issue comic book arc from 1982 written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller, in which Wolverine journeyed to Japan to win the love of a beautiful young woman named Mariko Yashida, only to come into conflict with the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia) and Mariko’s clan, particularly her father Lord Shingen, a powerful and ruthless samurai and crime lord whom Logan is forced to kill in mortal combat to win the hand of his true love, along the way being forced to find peace with the noble warrior he desires to be and the animal that lies within him. The story is regarded by many fans as the single greatest Wolverine story ever told and has been adapted, with some alterations, into various Wolverine-centric X-Men media over the years. Hugh Jackman and the producers of the X-Men film series have said that they too have always loved the Japan story arc and wanted to see it on the big screen, but the studio called for a full-blown origin film be made first before something that ambitious and, lets face, less commercial, could receive the green light. But does this new film fare any better than Origins did? Let’s find out.
The story begins in 1945 as Logan (played by Jackman) is being held prisoner inside a well in a concentration camp in Nagasaki. One of the soldiers in the camp named Yashida (played by Ken Yamamura) is alerted that a air strike is approaching and decides to let Logan out of his containment as the bomb is dropped on the city. Logan knows that neither of them can possibly escape the blast, so he throws them both back down the well and shields Yashida off as he takes a minimal amount of force from the bomb, which he heals from with his healing factor. Yashida thanks Logan for saving his life as the two men part ways.
Decades later, Logan is now living the life of a hermit having constant nightmares and visions of his having to kill his true love Jean Grey (played by Famke Janssen). As he gets in a fight at a bar, he meets a young woman named Yukio (played by Rila Fukushima), who is a representative of the now aged and dying Yashida (played by Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who wants Logan to come to Japan so he can thank him for saving his life all those years ago. Logan reluctantly agrees and when in Tokyo he also meets Yashida’s son, Shingen (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) and his granddaughter Mariko (played by Tao Okamoto). Yashida reveals that he wants to free Logan of his eternal torment by offering to use his companies technological advancements to remove his mutation and make him mortal, so that Logan can be allowed to grow old and die like he wants, while Yashida can absorb Logan’s powers into himself to stay alive. Logan refuses, but that night Yashida’s doctor, secretly a mutant with snake-like abilities named Viper (played by Svetlana Khodchenkova) injects Logan with a parasite as the old man passes away. At the funeral, the Yakuza attempt to assassinate Mariko, named the new heir to the Yashida Clan in place of her father, and Logan has to protect her. But in doing so, he gets shot and realizes that he is no longer healing as usual, meaning that he is now vulnerable to attack and could be killed at any time.
Together, Logan and Mariko must flee Tokyo and take shelter across Japan, all the while unraveling a conspiracy involving Mariko’s father, her arranged fiancé, minister of justice Noburo Mori (played by Brian Tee) and perhaps even an childhood lover of Mariko’s, warrior and archer Kenuichio Harada (played by Will Yun Lee). But will the two of them survive this, or their growing attraction to one another? And will Logan ever find to inner peace he so desperately desires?
To say that this Wolverine film is a improvement over Origins is a understatement. Whereas that film was criticized for condensing too much of the characters lengthy back story and cramming in too many superfluous cameos by unnecessary mutant characters, this film instead keeps the focus on a single iconic plot line, includes only three other mutants (Jean Grey only in a dream, Yukio being a mutant when was was not in the comics, and another character appearing as a human when they were a mutant in the comics–more on that later). It keeps the focus solely on Wolverine and his personal growth, just as it should. This is not a obligatory exploration to fill in the blanks about the character’s past, but rather an exploration of character to help him come to terms with himself and forge a path to the man he will become in the future. There is a good reason why the X-Men title was dropped from this particular Wolverine film.
When it was announced that the filmmakers would be setting the Japanese story arc after the events X-Men: The Last Stand, fans were initially confused by that decision, as well as the inclusion of the old man Yashida and the idea of Logan loosing his healing factor, both of which were ideas not present in the original story arc. But watching the film, I think that for the most part those decisions really work out. The loss of Logan’s healing factor instantly solves the problem that the late Roger Ebert had elaborated on in his review of Origins: “Why should I care about this guy? He feels no pain and nothing can kill him, so therefore he’s essentially a story device for action sequences.” Because he can now get shot and be hurt because of it, it therefore makes the struggle he goes through that much more impressive and suddenly all of these non-mutant characters are a real threat.
Yashida is a surprisingly complex character. Before he dies, he wants to thank Logan in person for saving his life during the war, but he also wants to repay him for this good deed by offering to take away what he believes to be the source of all his torment; granted, yes, he has a selfish motive behind it, but the offer is still genuine despite that. The thing is, however, that Logan is struggling with exactly that dilemma before being called to Japan. How much death has he witnessed and been forced to do onto others, especially his true love Jean. After all of that, Logan is now living as a recluse with no idea what to do with his life. Yashida and Yukio both see him as a ronin, a samurai without a master, and like any warrior, he seeks a good death. Yashida thinks he can offer that to Logan, and seeing Logan considering an offer like this is a very interesting place to take his character.
Obviously this film is a fish out of water story. We have the scruffy American (excuse me, Canadian) foreigner (or “gaijin”) being brought to another land where everything is different than what he knows. As Captain Logan noted in his spoiler podcast of the film, the Japanese culture, being heavily dependent on honor and respect, rubs off on Logan and his relationship with his own nature. Before he always treated his powers as a crutch, having no real fears about getting into a fight because he will always heal himself. As the events of his life unfolded, that changed to him seeing his powers ans a curse. But after that power is taken away he suddenly has to learn a respect for his own mortality and the mortality of others. Once its gone, he suddenly wants it back again to do what he needs to do, and therefore gains a whole new respect for it that he didn’t have before. And it is so cool to see him learn that among a culture that is founded on honor and respect.
Wolverine is absolutely a ronin; he is a warrior with no past (or at least very little of a past that he can remember), he has no commitments to anything, not even to the X-Men anymore, he is deciding whether he wants a good death to be with the woman he loves, and he still has his periods of loosing control of his inner animal, the beast within that we Wolverine is so famous for. Coming out of the film, I felt an even higher level of appreciation for the character than I already had as a lifelong X-Men fan–when fans asked for a stand alone Wolverine spin off, this is what they were waiting for!
The relationship between Logan and Mariko forms the emotional spine of the film. They are both individuals burdens with a gift that they do not want–his being his mutant powers and hers being her pending inheritance of the company and the clan. They are also both giving each other the emotional release that the other seems to need, even though they are clearly opposites (he is feral and unkempt, she is formal and reserved). Mariko is trapped in her situation with an resentful and even abusive father and is do to get married to a man she doesn’t love, so with all of that, plus the possibility of her life ending at any moment, it shouldn’t be surprised that she would inevitably form an attraction to this mysterious gaijin that is watching out or her. For Logan, Mariko represents a chance to finally move on from the death of Jean, not in the sense that she could ever fully replace her, but in the sense that he can find happiness that he has not had for as long as he can remember. Yes, the dream sequences he keeps having about Jean while he is protecting–and perhaps sleeping–with Mariko border on making look like a two-timer, but whatever. By the end, their relationship does not end necessarily happily, but it end well enough, leaving the door open for future chemistry between them, be it good or ill.
The cinematography and production design of this film is fascinatingly beautiful, deliberately different for an X-Men film. The scenery of Japan, both within the cities and out in the countryside, evoke both a classic Japanese atmosphere we often expect from Kurosawa-inspired ninja and samurai epics, but it also makes it clear that this is still very mush the Japan of modern times. Yukio refers to the old man Yashida as a man who keeps one eye on the past and the other on the future, and that seems to be a theme in this film. The Yashida family home is a good example of this, with the home looking for the most part like a classic Japanese home we have seen in dozens of movies, but then we get inside the room where Yashida is being treated and we see him on a very high-tech chair surrounded by equipment that looks inside his body, yet on the wall is a large mural depicting a ancient battle between samurai and ninjas locked in battle. Even the character of the Silver Samurai is a blend of the past and the future–an towering, robotic samurai armor made from adamantium.
In speaking about the Silver Samurai, that brings me to probably my two biggest complaint about the film. The type of story and the deliberately slower pacing and more personal focus makes this easily the least comic booky (Is that even a word?) film is the franchise, and frankly, that works to its benefit. But once we get into the third act, that is when the film, perhaps inevitably, decides to give the people what they want and goes for the big battles, the big reveals about who is hiring who to kill Mariko, and the climax that takes place inside a completely high-tech looking pagoda in the snowy countryside of Japan. This is were we see the Viper character show the full extent of her mutant powers and where the Silver samurai robot comes out and, despite all of this stuff being properly set up earlier in the film, it still feels very different than the rest of the film we have seen before hard. I’m not complaining too much, but it needs to be addressed all the same.
Also, there is a supporting character in the film named Harada, who in the comic books is the true identity of the Silver Samurai, and he is a mutant. In this film, he is instead rewritten as a human character and a master archer who leads a group of ninja and is tasked with protecting Mariko, while the Silver Samurai is…well, I won’t give away the big reveal, but suffice to say, as an X-Men fan is was really confused by that swerve. It, coupled with the minimal amount of screen time he gets until the third acts, makes this examiner question the necessity of his character at all. I do not believe that it is going to cause an uproar on the same level as the Mandarin did in Iron Man 3, but hardcore X-Men watching the film are definitely going to have expectations thrown for a loop.
The action sequences here are all well choreographed, but not always well shot. The sequence on top of the speeding bullet train is the standout piece for the film, which is great because it looked to be the tackiest part of it based on all of the trailers. But then you have the assassination attempt at the funeral, which has a lot of good fight moves, but the camera is a bit too shaky and Wolverine’s stabbing of those Yakuza thugs is not clearly shown. The reason for this is simple…to keep the rating a PG-13. However, this examiner’s personal favorite actin sequence is the battle between Logan and Shingen, both for the choreography, the staging, the lighting, and the raw emotion that the scene has; it is also a key scene because it is where Logan comes full circle with who he really is. Although, again, the level of violence ins kept in check do to the rating, so even though we do see a lot of blood in this film, including one particularly gruesome scene where Logan has to cut himself open to reach into his own body (long story), at the end of that fight Logan then pulls a sword out of his body and there is no blood on the blade…no, I don’t think so! The final battle with Viper and Silver Samurai is also a lot of fun it that typical comic book movie way, but I personally like the mono-a-mono between Logan and Shingen better.
More than any other X-Men film before it, The Wolverine lives and breathes on its casting. Hugh Jackman delivers his best performance to date as the Wolverine, showing that after thirteen years and five previous films he knows his character inside and out and this time gets to explore the characters inner nature and identity in a way that he has not been able to before. What more can I say, Hugh Jackman simply IS Wolverine. Hiroyuki Sanada is delightfully ruthless as Shingen Yashida, playing the role as one would expect of a typical Asian mob boss, but with a nobility that with a misguided motivation dissolves into insanity. Not the deepest villain in a superhero film to be sure, but he definitely succeeds in being the person that we meet and instantly dislike. Tao Okamoto is effective as Mariko Yashida, not coming across as terribly expressive and outgoing, but that is clearly the point. She succeeds in giving the character a sense of inner strength that is just waiting to come to the surface as her time with Logan allows her to discover herself. Rila Fukushima is cool and surprisingly charming as Yukio, playing the character as something of a comedic foil to Logan, but in the witty and polite kind of way instead of with sarcasm or bad jokes. It was nice to see how involved see was in this story and I am curious to see what, if anything, Fox might do with her in future films. Will Yun Lee appears as Kenuichio Harada, and while the role gives him great opportunity to showcase his martial arts talent, the creative liberties taken with the character sadly proves to be a wasted opportunity. Still, he does the best he has to work with and the feelings he expresses towards Mariko do feel genuine. Haruhiko Yamanouchi is enchanting to me as Ichirō Yashida, playing the role both very sincere and very mysterious. He is a man who is clearly offering Logan a great gift with his own selfish motivations behind it, but he still believes that he is doing Logan a favor. This is a surprisingly complex performance for a role that did not even originate from the comic books. Brian Tee appears as Noburo Mori; not a whole lot to say about him, but he succeeds in his job of making this guy a total scumbag with the little screen time he is aloud. the scene between him and Logan is probably the funniest scene in the film. Svetlana Khodchenkova does not get a whole lot of dimension as Viper, but her attitude and look are totally adequate for the character’s role in the film. Not the deepest or most interesting character, but at least she succeeds on the level the film in playing her on. Famke Janssen reprises her role as Jean Grey in a series of dream sequence (or are they dreams, I’m not totally sure), and her acting is about on par with the other X-Men movies, good, but could be improved. Still, she works very effectively in here and I was surprised that we kept seeing more and more of her instead of just a simple walk-on cameo.
Oh, and I should tell the fans that there is a mid-credits scene that directly sets up the events that we will see in next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. I went into the theater having no knowledge of it whatsoever, and after seeing it…I was hyped up for Days of Future Past before, but after this scene, I wanted to see the film yesterday!
Overall, The Wolverine is the superhero surprise of the summer and the rare opportunity for a major studio franchise to branch off and offer something less conventional and much more personally focused. It is the least like a comic book of all the the films so far, and that proves to be its strength. The thematic elements, visuals, acting and action are all solid, although it does suffer from a cliched third act, some awkwardly shot action sequences, restrictions do to the PG-13 rating, and at least one character that was realize on the film the way I would have preferred. Still, despite its flaws, it is a clear step up for the Wolverine character and for the franchise and I am giving it a low four stars.