The Wolverine

The Wolverine

***

Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Starring in James Mangold’s The Wolverine ensures Hugh Jackman has earned the distinction of having portrayed a comic book character on film more than any other actor, this being his sixth outing as the immortal, super-healing and eternally gruff Logan, AKA Wolverine (assuming you include his scene-stealing cameo in prequel film X-Men: First Class). The upcoming X-Men Days Of Future Past, directed by original X-Men director Bryan Singer, will make it seven and will presumably combine the plot threads and characters from all the X-Men films so far into one giant mush.

That leaves Mangold’s film as a kind of bridging piece between X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men First Class that was set decades before the original X-Men movie, and X-Men Days Of Future Past. It also comes after Marvel Studios, the owners of the X–Men license, made a stab at a previous standalone Wolverine film, the backstory cash-in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That film was supposed to be an origin tale to the titular character, but ended up critically mauled.

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Confused? You should be, given these films all take place in different decades and feature different characters, in some cases different actors have portrayed the same character in different time periods. At times it feels as if you need a map to keep up, though such twisted continuity is par for the course in the comic books these films cannibalise. Given his immortality, Wolverine is at least the one character who can connect all these decade-crossing threads.

The first section of the film shows us a solo Logan down and out in the backwoods of snowy Canada, much as we saw him in the first X-Men film. Bearded and straggly-haired, Logan is wracked with guilt at having had to kill his true love, fellow mutant Jean Grey, in the titanic battle at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand. When he sleeps, she comes to him in dreams (original actress Famke Janssen returns to play the role), calling to him to join her. It’s the ultimately irony, the one man on earth who cannot die now has a death wish. The isolated woodland setting is atmospheric and Jackman a suitably grizzled wanderer, though perhaps the ‘Wolverine as wounded animal’ theme is rammed home a bit too strongly.

Soon though, wild man Logan is swept off to Tokyo by the mysterious martial artist Yukio (Rula Fukushima). She works for Yashida (Hiroyuki Sanada), a former Japanese prison guard who was saved by Logan during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki (a destructive event quite effectively recreated in one of Logan’s dreams). Yoshida has since built himself a powerful technology empire, making him one of Japan’s most influential and richest business titans. Now dying, Yashida has a strange gift to offer Logan as a reward for saving his life. Unwilling to leave his family, and his beautiful granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), to the whims of fate and threats from the Yakuza, he confesses he wants Logan’s immortality. Though Logan disbelieves him, Yashida claims he has developed the technology that can transfer Logan’s healing mutation to another person. Logan, likened to a ‘Ronin’ (a masterless samurai), can then finally have the death that Yashida believes he must be seeking, having watched so many others that he cared about die over the decades.

A chain of events following Yashida’s death leave Logan weakened by a deteriorating healing ability, and both he and Mariko fleeing across Japan from the Yakuza. Uncertain how his healing power has been compromised given he never agreed to Yashida’s plan, Logan has no choice but to slice and dice his way through hordes of thugs, get Mariko to a safe hiding place, and find out who is coordinating this attempt on Yashida’s heir and how they took away his healing ability. And, maybe in the process he can find something to truly live for.

Not a regular player in the genre, Mangold here tempers the The Wolverine into a more minimalist and low-key piece compared to the now-standard city-scale destruction seen in superhero movies. There are fewer mutants and super powers on display than the other films in the X-Men franchise, in fact this at times feels more like a Far Eastern-set gangster film than an X-Men movie. There is also a noticeably more adult tone when it comes to language and gore. The weakening of Wolverine as his healing factor bleeds away also contributes to the more dialed down tone, scale and pacing, as for the middle section of the film he is gradually reduced to a bleeding and staggering wreck who cannot barrel through hordes of enemies any more. Bullets hurt now.

This all certainly makes for a different kind of superhero movie, as does the Japanese setting and the regular use of actual Japanese dialogue (though Japan is once again stereotyped somewhat as an Oriental mystery land of Yakuzas and old traditions that baffle the outsider). But the strengths of this film are often weakness on the flipside. A solo Wolverine film allows space for the character to be explored more deeply, but Wolverine is arguably a more interesting character when he can play off the other X-Men (isn’t that also the whole point of the entire franchise – that this is about a group?). Japan is certainly a new setting for the X-Men franchise, but the thematic opportunities here are not deeply explored. A weakened Wolverine adds a new vulnerability to the character, but it also takes away what makes him fun. As charismatic and ridiculously muscled as Jackman is, this film is up against the tragic error made by too many superhero movies - he lacks an equally charismatic villain to battle (a role Ian McKellen admirably filled in the earlier X-Men films). The more adult tone will please some fans who want their Wolverine gritty, but it desperately lacks the smart, knowing humour of Singer’s films.

As the most recognisable character from the Marvel stable, and with Jackman now strongly identified with the role that made him a star, it was probably inevitable that another semi-standalone solo outing for the bladed one would emerge, if only to blot out the sour taste of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In this Mangold is successful, but his film, for all Jackman’s charisma, still feels like this is marking time until the next big X-Men event film happens. The post-credits end coda reveals that this is exactly what The Wolverine is. Surely he deserves better.

Reviewed on: 19 Jul 2013
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Summoned to Japan by an old acquaintance, Wolverine becomes embroiled in a conflict that forces him to confront his own demons.
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Director: James Mangold

Writer: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, Christopher McQuarrie

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Rila Fukushima, Brian Tee, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, James Fraser, Hal Yamanouchi, Garret Sato, Luke Webb, Ken Yamamura, Nobuaki Kakuda

Year: 2013

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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