Directed by James Mangold. Starring Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Hirojuki Sanada, Will Yun Lee, Brian Tee, Světlana Chodčenkova, James Fraser, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto. Written by Mark Bomback, Scott Frank.
A solid, self-contained little X-Men one-shot with a clear focus on its central protagonist (unlike its immediate predecessor, 2009’s murky X-Men Origins: Wolverine), James Mangold’s The Wolverine is a surprisingly straightforward, well-defined and even (at times) low-key picture that dares to subvert traditional blockbuster formula – and fares all the better for it.
We know Hugh Jackman’s Logan – and his cinematic backstory – from Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films and Brett Ratner’s dismal third. Fans looking forward to a Wolverine movie (Jackman, perfectly cast, was born for this role, and rose to stardom through it) were thrown for a loop by the 2009 film, which not only (being a prequel) failed to do much with the continuity of the first three films, but also tried to stuff in as many other mutants as possible (including, to name a few, Sabretooth, Deadpool, and Gambit – the latter two even hoped to get their own spinoff based upon their debut).
Wolverine, in other words, got lost in his own movie; the character was far better developed in the first two X-Men films. That’s a mistake The Wolverine (don’t you just love that continuity in sequel titling) hopes to correct: this is all Logan, all the time. Credited to writers Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, and Christopher McQuarrie, the script is inspired by the character’s original spinoff: the 1982 4-issue comic by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, which brought Logan to Japan.
This time around, he has a different motive for the soul-searching. We all want to forget the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (in addition to the event of seeing it), but that film had a genuinely significant moment for our hero involving Jean Grey (played by Famke Janssen, who returns here in a series of increasingly puzzling dream sequences).
The Wolverine picks up Logan’s story from where that film left off: our hero has become a bearded hermit living in the Pacific Northwest, wanting nothing to do with the X-Men or the mutant fight. The opening scenes (which, in service of the fans, directly mimic the opening of the Claremont/Miller comic) feature Logan tracking down a hunter who has used a poison arrow to kill a bear.
That’s interrupted by the arrival of Yukio (Rila Fukushima) a messenger for someone from Logan’s past: Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), a soldier he saved during the WWII bombing of Nagasaki who went on to become an incredibly rich and powerful businessman. Yashida is dying, and wants to say goodbye to the man who saved his life. But when Logan comes to Japan, he discovers everything isn’t exactly as advertised…
Note for fans of the comic: while The Wolverine features other familiar names like Lord Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), Mariko (Tao Okamoto), and Harada (Will Yun Lee), their characterizations here bear little resemblance to those in the comic. In this scaled-down feature, the only other mutant (besides Yukio, who has the relatively useless gift of being able to see when someone will die) is the beautiful Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper, who paralyzes her victims with an ill-defined venom.
Unlike, seemingly, every major blockbuster that has come before it (see, oh, R.I.P.D., White House Down, Pacific Rim, World War Z, Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast & Furious 6, Iron Man 3, Oblivion, Olympus Has Fallen, G.I. Joe 2: Retaliation, and A Good Day to Die Hard and that’s just in the past few months), The Wolverine, refreshingly, does not put the fate of the world at stake during the course of it’s running time.
Instead, the story centers on our protagonist and Mariko, the girl he unwittingly comes to protect. At some point during the course of the film, I realized that it was actually about its characters and breathed a sigh of relief: the simple, straightforward plot is enough to hold our attention while allowing for enough character moments to actually allow these people to grow. Despite being a near-immortal comic book hero, Logan actually has a tangible character arc here, which is no small feat.
Despite all of its other problems (including, but not limited to, director Mangold’s mishandling of the action scenes, which was last witnessed in Knight & Day, and the usual third act problems), The Wolverine is almost a breath of fresh air in the increasingly stale realm of comic book blockbusters. While the American-in-Japan angle is nothing new (think The Yakuza, or John Frankenheimer’s underrated The Challenge, of which I was frequently reminded), it’s an unusual and diverting setting.
No, this one isn’t going to ooh-and-awe and attempt to wow you with scenes of relentless destruction. The action scenes are few and far between (though there is one standout, atop a fast-moving bullet train). But as a scaled-back, character-focused outing – which is exactly what this kind of spinoff ought to be – The Wolverine is a rousing success.
In cinemas, The Wolverine is screening in both 2D and 3D versions; the 3D I caught was technically accomplished, but adds nothing to the experience – I’d recommend catching it in 2D.
Note: stick around during the closing credits for a bonus teaser for the next X-Men film.