Hugh Jackman dons his feral muttonchops and razor sharp adamantium blades once again in “The Wolverine”; a superhero film that, to it’s esteemed credit, hardly feels like a conventional super-hero film with more of an overall emphasis on character study rather than CGI pyrotechnics.
This is Jackman’s sixth outing as Logan, the ages old, indestructable antihero that has been one of the primary linchpin characters in the X-Men film franchise. Over the arc of the film series, Jackman has truly made this character one of the more interesting and popular ones to watch as a grumpy, cigar-chomping, often enigmatic figure with a mysteriously shady past. His mutant blessing and curse is his body’s abilities to cure itself of any wound making him practically invincible; as well as an adamantium inner skeleton and razor sharp claws that extend when Logan is angered, much to the dismay of any adversary that should cross his path.
However, it’s Logan’s very immortality that provides the conflict in this follow-up to the events that took place in the previous franchise installment “X-Men: The Last Stand”. His life longevity is a double-edged sword that cuts as painfully sharp on his emotions as his metallic claws easily slice everything else. Logan gets to experience a multitude of lifetimes; but as a result, he often outlives those he grows to care for.
Most significantly in this installment, loosely based on the original stand alone comic book mini-series adventure, “Wolverine” by the notable duo of Frank Miller and Chris Clairemont, Logan has become a deeply troubled and more withdrawn individual than ever before. He is haunted by the death of his love Jean Grey, whom he was reluctantly forced to kill at the climax of “X-Men: The Last Stand” to save others that she threatened to destroy. His dreams are filled with imaginary pillow talk with the deceased, but beautifully ethereal, Jean ( Famke Janssen ) in gentle banter that only exacerbates his regret and loss.
In “The Wolverine”, we initially find Logan living the life of an isolated hermit in the Canadian wilderness ruminating over the death of his lost love and troubled at being condemned to seemingly eternal regret as a result of his immortality. However, the story’s primary narrative draws from an event much earlier in Logan’s extended life at the end of World War II, seen in flashback. Logan is imprisoned by the Japanese on the island of Nagasaki, but is released by a sympathetic young Japanese soldier only moments before the U.S. drops the second atomic bomb of the war on the coastal city. In turn, Logan manages to save the vulnerable soldier’s life from the searing explosive blast in one of the film’s few, but riveting action sequences.
Fast forward to the present day, and Logan encounters the beautifully pixie-like Yukio, a kitana-wielding emissary who’s lightning skills with a sword are veiled beneath her petite exterior. Yukio’s mission is to bring Logan to Japan to meet her adopted caretaker and employer, Lord Yashida ( Hal Yamanouchi ), an ailing and elderly, billionaire industrialist living on borrowed time and reluctant to die.
Yukio reveals to Logan that Lord Yashida, the wealthy businessman is also the once-youthful Japanese soldier he saved in Nagasaki decades before and wishes to see Logan before he dies. However, upon their meeting, Lord Yashida has a proposal for Logan that he believes will benefit them both and bring each of them eternal peace.
Meantime, Logan catches the attention of Yashida’s beautiful granddaughter, Mariko ( Tao Okamoto ) who becomes entangled in a complex plot full of intrigue involving her mob-boss father ( Hiroyuki Sanada ), his Yukuza henchmen, a small army of ninja warriors and a beautiful but deadly mutant named Viper ( Svetlana Khodchenkova ) whose touch of her serpentine tongue leads to a painfully searing death for those unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end.
When it’s discovered Mariko stands to inherit her grandfather’s business and fortune upon his ultimate death, all the aforementioned players embark on a mission to kidnap and kill Mariko for their own nefarious ends. After a kidnap attempt is made on Mariko at her grandfather’s funeral, Logan rescues her and the duo escape with all her grandfather’s apparent enemies in hot pursuit.
What makes this film so wonderfully different and exquisitely understated from the unusual offering in the superhero genre is it’s main reliance on compelling storytelling and character development. The typical bombast and over-the-top, CGI enhanced action sequences throughout parts of this film are kept to a minimum. Indeed, much of the action comes in the form of superbly choreographed fight sequences involving ninja / samurai swordplay rather than otherworldly super-powers.
Granted, there are some equally superb action set pieces that stand out in the film. A dazzling fight sequence between Logan and Mariko’s Yakuza pursuers atop Japan’s noted bullet train while speeding at 300 miles per hour is marvelous in it’s ingenuity and heart stopping complexity. Equally impressive is a spectacular battle and pursuit between Logan and an army of agile, roof leaping ninja warriors armed with bows and arrows that evokes images of Kurosawa’s samurai inspired work.
However, where director James Mangold shines is steeping this film in beautifully mysterious Japanese culture and atmosphere. The environment Logan finds himself in is one where he is unsure and uncertain, navigating his way almost tentatively. When Logan is temporarily stripped of his invulnerability, his journey takes on a path even less reliant on typical superhero film tropes. For much of the film, Logan / Wolverine has been somewhat neutered and hobbled by the loss of his powers, making Logan’s story more focused on his humanity and survival, rather than easily dispatching the bad guys with casual abandon.
Jackman’s moments with Mariko provide this film with some of it’s most intimate and poignant character interactions; while the deceptively formidable Yukio, who becomes Logan’s self-proclaimed bodyguard also presents some of the film’s most enjoyable glimpses of on-screen action tinged with light, deft humor.
The film’s action-packed climax involving something called The Silver Samurai tends to fall into familiar superhero territory with the requisite wreckage and bombast, including a somewhat predictable twist on the plot line to this point. Make no mistake, it’s entertaining and satisfying enough to hold your attention. However, the grandiose ending seems a tad out of place given the more tempered, less over the top narrative that preceded and, indeed, elevated this overall film above what’s usually expected in this genre.
The repetitive appearance of Jean Grey in Logan’s dreams also tends to slow the narrative. Though, it ultimately serves as the rather clunky device to show Logan’s eventual acceptance of his true purpose and ability to move on with his life.
As is typical of the Marvel line of superhero films, be sure to stay beyond the closing credits for a coda scene that features one of the more entertaining and genuinely exciting teases for the next installment in the series “X-Men: Days of Future Past”. The scene provides a novel twist and unexpected characters that will have fans of the franchise giddy with anticipation for what promises to be an exciting, entertaining romp.
“The Wolverine”, in the hands of director Mangold and Jackman, distinguishes itself as a truly stand-alone film in the Marvel film universe. It’s a film that takes it’s primary character out of the familiar superhuman realm we are used to seeing him inhabit and transports the audience, and Logan himself, to a more humanized, subtle facet of the character.
This is a film where less… provides infinitely more substance.
Tim Estiloz is a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimEstiloz and at www.TimEstiloz.com. – Be sure to LIKE his page on Facebook at: Tim Estiloz Film Reviews.