The story goes that when director and series newcomer James Mangold ("Walk the Line," "3:10 to Yuma") received the script for "The Wolverine," the first thing he did was write five words on it: "Everyone I love will die."
It’s an intriguing production story, one that teases at why this Wolverine film is new (besides its Japanese locale) and worth telling not even five years after "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" blandly sputtered into theatres seemingly half-finished.
Of course, production stories are exactly that: stories. The journey from page to screen is a perilous one, and many a director has seen his lofty aspirations get sliced down to size and carefully scrubbed into something barely resembling the original idea.
Thankfully, Mangold’s goal for a more confined, character-focused and humanized Wolverine is firmly implanted on "The Wolverine" like adamantium on the popular mutant’s bones, much to its benefit. The result enjoyably combines the familiar stuff we’ve loved about the character in the past – his badassness, his snarky sense of humor, the fact that he’s played by the charismatic Hugh Jackman – with some satisfyingly fresh material as well.
The last time we saw Logan (besides his hilarious cameo in "First Class"), he was recovering from a shot to the head with an amnesia bullet. It seems Mangold and his duo of writers, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, know the feeling, as "The Wolverine" mostly forgets about "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (despite a trip to Japan being teased in that film, but no complaints here) and takes place after the events of "The Last Stand."
Wolverine is now a bearded loner, living out in the Canadian woods, haunted by memories of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the woman he loved but had to kill when she turned evil in part three. He’s pulled out of his self-mandated exile by Yukio (the captivating Rila Fukushima), a mutant messenger from Japan also haunted by death.
Logan saved her boss Yashida back in the bombing of Nagasaki (the film’s tense, smartly crafted and even chilling opening). Now, as a dying old man, he wishes to say farewell to his old savior and perhaps grant him a special gift: mortality. Logan, wary of passing on his curse and medical procedures in general considering his past, turns him down.
Before he can get out of town and return to protecting the Canadian bear population (long story), the old man’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is attacked by the Yakuza. Logan ends up protecting her and in the process gets caught up in a web of treacherous family ties, political games and Yakuza hits that seem to require an incredibly convoluted flow chart to completely understand.
Mangold smartly doesn’t get horribly bogged down with the plot machinations or exposition. The confusion even kind of works considering the audience is experiencing things through Wolverine’s perspective, and the audience, just like him, is getting thrown into the drama. After all, the focus isn’t on the confusing Japanese family dealings. It’s on Logan as a character.
It’s this smaller, character first approach in "The Wolverine" that makes it feel surprisingly fresh and intriguing. I’m not sure how well Jean Grey’s guilt-mongering presence works with the film (personally, I was hoping for more emphasis on the effect of living forever rather than the more typical guilty conscience arc) but the script’s overall focus on Logan’s struggle with immortality adds something new and interesting to the character.
It also gives Jackman a few more notes for the character other than rogue badass. He’s wounded, and connection is a risk. If he doesn’t kill his loved ones, time will. Jackman handles the new emotional weight well while still keeping the fun, tough guy charisma that made him a star after the first X-Men film.
Logan’s emotional wounds become dangerously physical when, in one of the screenplay’s best moves, his healing powers disappear in the first act. He still seems to take bullets like a champ, but his new sense of pain – effectively presented by Mangold with blurry close-ups, slo-mo and slurring camera moves – makes protecting himself and Mariko a much harder task.
It not only gives Wolverine a new character element to work with, but it adds to the tense, personal stakes of the various sword fights scattered throughout the film. Mangold doesn’t do anything revolutionary with the action, but the sequences – namely an exhilarating battle on top of a speeding bullet train – are all exciting and surprisingly vicious (it seems to be the summer of the extremely generous PG-13 rating). And best of all, the audience always feels invested in what’s happening and the people involved.
And if Mangold isn’t a wizard with action, his work with the visuals and setting prove he was the right man for the job after Darren Aronofsky ("Black Swan") left the production. He incorporates the unique Japanese setting and traditions beautifully into the film (that alone makes the film feel different), and Marco Beltrami’s score even works in some wailing harmonicas in tribute to Mangold’s love of westerns.
After doing so much right with grounded characters, action and stakes, the final act unfortunately knocks back a few too many saké bombs and takes a turn for the wack-a-doodle (that’s a technical term). It becomes a silly, cluttered mess involving a giant CGI robot samurai and a blonde – and bland – mutant villain named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) whose most notable feature is her collection of Ninja Gaiden-approved jumpsuits.
It’s an overload of effects, characters and general ridiculousness that reminded me of the overdone finale to last summer’s "Dark Shadows," and when I’m drawing comparisons to "Dark Shadows," something has gone gravely wrong.
The last 20 minutes – plus the clumsy mid-credits teaser for "Days of Future Past" – do dull what is mostly sharp entertainment. But for about two hours, "The Wolverine" is refreshingly solid, and in a summer season as weak as this current one, solid almost qualifies as strong.
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