For a guy who can heal himself at will, Wolverine is one deeply damaged guy.
There is an ironic frailty at the heart of this character that has barely been explored for his last 5 big screen appearances. Until now. Enter director James Mangold, who in his pitch to Hugh Jackman captured it in just one line: “Everyone he loves will eventually die.” Immortality can be a terrible burden when you have nothing left to live for. The filmmakers have smartly found a way in via this poignant theme. It’s a great jumping off point to do a more grounded, mature take on subject matter so steeped in the fantastical.
And that’s what surprised me most about “The Wolverine”. Not only is it a lot better than the blah trailers suggested, it succeeds first and foremost as a human drama. If anything, it’s less assured when it slips into Superhero Movie mode. But when the film gets up close and personal with the man named Logan and his relationship with the characters that populate this particular story, it makes for a very good watch. While a few of the storytelling devices that Mangold employs to let us in on Logan’s headspace border on cheesy, what matters is we at last get to know him and more importantly, care about him. No mean feat for such a guarded, standoffish personality.
I suspect that’s the stuff that drew a filmmaker like Mangold to the project in the first place. Paycheque and potential industry clout aside, he must have relished the chance to examine the tragic and torn nature of this comicbook superhero. Not that it’s all ponderous, existentialist hand-wringing. Any movie that features a mutant with an unbreakable skeleton and razor-sharp metal claws is bound to have more than a couple of bust-ups. I will tell you upfront that if you come solely for the action then you’re probably going to find less to savour than if you give in to its quieter, more thoughtful moments.
In those moments, it’s almost as if Mangold has made a foreign arthouse film and slipped it in under the guise of a mainstream crowd-pleaser. The bulk of the story takes place in Japan so there’s a fair bit of Japanese dialogue, and not all of it is subtitled either. Common Hollywood “wisdom” dictates that you don’t do subtitles because modern multiplex audiences are too lazy to read. This director is more concerned with striking an authentic feel.
You feel that most in the superb production design, where the love of all things Japanese shines through. You’d never guess this was filmed in Australia and not Japan (save for a few 2nd Unit establishing shots). From the costumes, to the props, to the extras, to the sets, everything looks and sounds like the real thing. Even the pace of the film, which impatient viewers will mistake for lethargic, actually moves with a measured, Zen-like flow.
Mangold, working off a script by Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback & Scott Frank (itself heavily inspired by comic writer Chris Claremont’s seminal storyline from the 80s), directs with a sense of old-school restraint. I like the way he lets scenes breathe, giving his actors time to linger on an expression or reaction. You don’t see much of this sort of unhurried approach any more, especially in a genre like this. Mangold cited influences like Yasujiro Ozu’s family stories and Clint Eastwood’s Westerns, and refreshingly it’s not just pretentious hot air. They really do add to the mood of the film in a positive way.
If I’m making the film sound all highbrow and self-serious, don’t worry. At the end of the day, the filmmakers know full well what kind of film they’re making. So they give us the requisite doses of Wolverine doing what he does best: slicing and dicing the baddies. Too bad this isn’t an R-rated picture, or we’d get to see the full extent of his infamous Berserker rage. As it stands, the action is just alright, with the most engaging fight sequence set atop a speeding bullet train. Various other showdowns are either over too quickly or cut too tightly to really allow us to appreciate Logan’s special brand of bladed brawling. What’s good about the action scenes is that they actually move the plot along instead of being self-contained sections irrelevant to everything else.
The only issue I have with the central conceit about Logan’s war with himself is exactly that: since he is his own worst enemy, it doesn’t leave much room for any proper external antagonist. Perhaps realising and attempting to offset this, the filmmakers shoehorn in a Big Bad at the climax almost out of nowhere. Not only does it not feel earned, the nature of the combatant is at odds with the grounded tone of the proceedings until that point. Still, I can’t begrudge them too much for wanting to inject some fun. And the sequence is kinda fun in a slightly goofy, overtly comicbook sort of way.
Speaking of overt comicbookiness, villainess Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) also doesn’t quite belong here. These elements reveal the jarring misfit between Mangold’s intentions and the demands of a Marvel superhero flick. Thankfully, they’re relatively minor and in an odd way help to lighten up the film, giving it a youthful pop culture energy in an otherwise adult-minded affair.
Hugh Jackman is really the glue that holds the two disparate tones together. By now, he wears the role like a comfortable, albeit kingly robe, knowing exactly the right way to play any given scene to suit the intended vibe. He wields the wisecracks as effectively and commandingly as he does the serious emotional stuff. Even in his dream sequences with Jean Grey, who appears as a figment of his conscience, the total conviction in his performance negates the soft-focus schmaltz. Plus, the guy is such an impressive physical specimen, just looking at him flex his sinewy muscles is enough to keep most audiences entertained.
The other notable performance is from Rila Fukushima as Logan’s sidekick Yukio. In some ways, she is the breakout star of the show. For a model-turned-actress, she sure holds her own against a star as charismatic as Jackman. She comes across cheeky yet sincere, vulnerable yet strong. I’d be happy to see her in any subsequent outings. Fellow model Tao Okamoto is slightly less memorable, but she is still fine as the love interest. The one cast member I feel was wasted is Hiroyuki Sanada, who isn’t given much to do beyond glower and bark some orders/insults. I mean, this is the protégé of the great Sonny Chiba! His one fight scene is okay but left me wanting way more. Other things that drag the score down are inconsistent character motivations and a couple of plot holes, the most glaring of which involves the removal of Logan’s powers.
None of this stopped me from enjoying the movie. The biggest victory of “The Wolverine” is that it repairs a lot of the past damage inflicted on the character and the “X-Men” franchise. By the time the (very cool) post end-credits scene rolls, you’ll be game for Logan and company’s next adventure. This is what happens when you give the reins to a director who respects the source material enough to be true to it, while laying down his own distinct and carefully considered vision of what the film needs to be.
I can already hear Wolverine growling: “I ain’t done yet, Bub.”