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.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Matt Mueller
Published July 2, 2015
Barely two years after his first show in 2013, WebsterX is now living his dream world he created of being a rap star. The 22-year-old rapper has risen to become one of the Milwaukee music scene's biggest stars, grabbing local and national headlines and, most recently, opening for global superstar Lupe Fiasco at the Miller Lite Oasis on Friday, July 3 at 8 p.m.
Published July 2, 2015
During his Amphitheater performance Wednesday night, Kendrick Lamar noted the last time he was here, "the energy was so motherf*ckin' loud," and if that was a 10, he wanted this show to hit a 12. Well, it certainly felt like a 12, with the packed crowd bobbing their heads, swaying their arms and just generally going crazy for every verse. And even though it barely lasted 60 minutes, Lamar's vigorous fireball of a set gave them plenty to go crazy about.
Published July 1, 2015
I'll admit it; before Tuesday night's Marcus Amphitheater show started up, one of those people was me. I wondered why a band, whose last seemingly notable moments came at the service of three-fourths of Michael Bay's "Transformers" franchise, was a Big Gig Amp headliner. Well, one large serving of crow, please, cooked medium rare.
Published June 30, 2015
Most bands desperately hope that their music videos will go viral. For pop rockers OK Go, at this point, it's almost expected. With a Summerfest headliner set scheduled for the Uline Warehouse on Thursday, July 2, I chatted with bassist/vocalist Tim Nordwind about the band's stories behind some of their viral sensations.
Published June 30, 2015
After traveling the globe in support of its star-making self-titled debut album, PHOX's tour is bringing the band right back to where its journey started in the first place: Wisconsin. Before it heads home to Baraboo, the band is dropping by its "home away from home" of Milwaukee to play Summerfest, opening for Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros on Thursday, July 2. Before then, we talked to Matt Holmen about his own fond Big Gig memories.
Published June 29, 2015
According to, well, herself, DJ Paris Hilton is one of the top paid DJs currently working. Unfortunately, much like the "Transformers" movies, her Summerfest set was one of those situations where the amount of the money involved was inversely proportionate to the amount of skill on display. Also like the "Transformers" films, it was loud, clunky, sporadically dull despite all of the noise, unnecessarily lengthy and, by the end, left me in a little bit of pain.
Published June 28, 2015
If you've seen Disney/Pixar's latest animated hit "Inside Out," there's a good chance a certain song has been rattling around in your mind ever since. No, not that TripleDent gum jingle, but the chorus to "Lava," the brief and beautifully rendered short about a volcanic island looking for love. While the short takes plenty of inspiration from Hawaii, as it turns out, Murphy's journey to get there made a stop right here in Milwaukee.
Published June 28, 2015
As clearly proved Saturday night at the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage, "Shut Up And Dance" pop rockers Walk The Moon can now draw a packed house. The only question: Would they put on a show worthy of the face painted mob they gathered? Most certainly.
Published June 27, 2015
For a guy whose latest album was titled "Can't Even Do Wrong Right," a lot has gone pretty right for legendary blues rocker Elvin Bishop over the past 365 days - an award-winning new album, a place on the soundtrack of one of Hollywood's biggest hits, a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and now a headliner gig at Summerfest on Tuesday, June 30.
Published June 27, 2015
The old-school folk group Punch Brothers tried something different and set their goals somewhere new Friday night at the BMO Harris Pavilion. Lead singer and maniacal mandolinist Chris Thile said their mission was not to raise the roof, but "tap the roof," delicately nudging the ceiling with his pointer fingers. Well, congratulations Punch Brothers; you tapped the roof Friday night at Summerfest. And then some.