Midweek Movie Review: The Wolverine

Well, we’re almost there. Although it isn’t the dark, R-rated actioner – filled with claw slashes, stabbings and sliced off limbs – that it could/should have been, comic book adaptation The Wolverine is definitely a substantial improvement over its predecessor X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Although it ultimately becomes overblown and nonsensical, what precedes its climax is a very focused, surprisingly “grounded” (for the most part) superhero flick, that keeps viewers engaged with its mix of pathos, action and even a few well-timed laughs.

The Wolverine takes its sweet time getting set up. After a World War II sequence in which we see Logan (Hugh Jackman) doing the noble thing and saving the life of a Japanese soldier from the Atomic bombing of Nagasaki, we leap forward to present day. Traumatised by his actions during X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan has retreated from civilisation and vowed to keep his claws sheathed. Still, our sullen hero is a sucker when it comes to justice. He’s also a sucker when it comes to tender-hearted young women requesting his help (remember his interactions with Anna Paquin’s Rogue?), So soon he’s accompanying punky, spunky Yukio (Rila Fukushima) back to Japan as the dying wish of the same soldier he saved decades previously.

It turns out the man, Yashida, used his second chance at life to become the head of the most powerful conglomerate in Japan. Logan has just enough time for a haircut and a tease of a butt shot before the Yakuza attack, a band of mysterious ninjas surface and our hero finds himself the bodyguard of Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). If that wasn’t enough, Logan has lost his instantaneous healing – he’s physically vulnerable for the first time in his life – and he suspects that has something to do with Yashida's statuesque scientist (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a slippery woman with the highest hairline you’ve ever seen.

Although he can always be replied upon for badassery, Wolverine isn’t known for his complexity or character evolution. He has three settings: sad, smart mouth cynical and angry. This said, I’m 90% sure that the reason cinemagoers have stuck with the unwilling superhero is leading man, Jackman, who embodies Logan so completely – mentally and physically. Playing Wolverine in the first X-Men movie launched Jackman’s international career back in 2000, and he has played the mutton-shopped Canadian five more times since then. In the character’s latest appearance, Jackman gets to bring a bit more nuance to Logan’s psychological torment, as well as a fuck-ton of muscle to his physicality. He has never been as ripped and veiny on-screen before.

In fact, if you can say such a thing, Jackman’s work as Wolverine ranks among the all-time great performances in superhero films, particularly those released during the resurgence of the last 15 years or so.

One of the most enjoyable things about The Wolverine is that for once it’s an X-Men film that resists the urge to stuff in as many fan-favourite mutants from the comics as possible. The film’s predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was especially guilty of scattering around frustratingly undeveloped characters and pointless cameos. Under the direction of James Mangold though, The Wolverine is as lean and mean as Logan’s body.

Almost entirely focused on Wolverine, the only other notable characters are the young Japanese women – pseudo-sisters – who rally to Logan’s side. Okamoto’s Mariko doesn’t have to do much more than be sweet and pretty, but she’s no pushover. And you certainly side with Wolverine in wanting to protect her. She’s gorgeous. Fukushima’s Yukio meanwhile is similarly lovely as an outcast orphan who is the epitome of loyalty and underdog resilience.

It’s a pity then that after doing so much to avoid the usual overblown superheroics – establishing more of a Black Rain crime actioner vibe in an enjoyably exotic setting – that The Wolverine’s climax is entirely that. Overblown. In the last twenty minutes of the film, it’s advisable not to think at all because character motivations make little to no sense, with the actions of more cryptic figures go completely undeciphered.

So, yeah, The Wolverine’s ending is a bit of a disappointment after everything that precedes it – leaving a slightly bland taste on the tongue. It’s not without its coolness factor but it’s your usual comic book battle and bombast… and it’s nothing we haven’t seen Wolverine tackle many times before on the big screen. For the record, his claws-out fight with Lady Deathstrike in X2 still remains the most satisfying of the character’s cinematic encounters to date.

By the way, a brain-dead, goodwill-undoing ending aside, make sure to stay in your seat for The Wolverine’s mid-credits sequence. It’s arguably the most squee-inducing for comic fans since Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury popped up at the end of the original Iron Man to discuss the Avengers Initiative. Let’s just say that claims The Wolverine is a standalone X-Men film are a big fat fib...

P.S. Avoid the 3D version of The Wolverine if you can. The post-production conversion adds absolutely nothing noticeable to the film.

3.5 stars out of 5.


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