THE WOLVERINE Review

In the four years it's been since Wolverine last graced the screen much has changed. While the conflicted mutant is still as relevant as he always was the attempt to capitalize on his popularity with the "X-Men Origins" series that tripped out of the gate and followed up the underwhelming X3: The Last Stand in the live action series of films gave everyone a strong sense of caution when it came to future X-Men projects. Granted, 2011's First Class was a well-received hit, but was in somewhat of a different vein though clearly still taking place in the universe set up by Bryan Singer in 2000. There has always been an attraction to Wolverine that clearly stood above the rest of his mutant team and it is understandable that Fox and Marvel would want to give the adamantium-clawed anti-hero another chance so it was nice to see they at least seemed to be giving the film some real thought this time around at first hiring director Darren Aronofsky, a pure critical darling, and even when that fell through bringing in someone like James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) to take over and flush out the film that would adapt one of the more popular comic book storylines in the Wolverine canon. The studios knew how the last solo Wolverine effort went over and they were intent on doing serious fan service this time around while at the same time attempting something different with the super hero genre. It is easy to forget that the original X-Men started this new wave of comic book movies that is still going strong today and whether you feel that is a good or bad thing it doesn't really matter because it is clear they are here to stay. That Hugh Jackman has now incarnated the character six times on screen (more than any other person has played any other superhero on screen) and completely owns the role says a lot about how much that first movie went in the right direction. I, personally, am a fan of comic book films. They are intriguing, most straddling the line between a real world setting with other-worldly elements while the current trend is to keep things as grounded as possible. The Wolverine does this with expert precision while not lettings its roots get away from it. This at once a thrilling character study while also delivering an interesting new story that truly stands on its own.

Mariko (Tao Okamoto) and Logan (Hugh Jackman) elude the baddies in The Wolverine.
Somewhat based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller 1982 series where Wolverine goes to Japan; the film is more of a sequel to X-Men: The Last Stand than anything else. This is taking on the idea of what happened to Wolverine after the climactic events of that film when Logan was forced to kill Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) who continues to haunt his dreams. He has retired as a soldier and as a fighter, he has secluded himself from society and is essentially forcing what had become the driving force behind his existence out of his life. This naturally brings up the question of what the point might be to go on living, but for a man who is immortal there is no escape no matter how hard he might try. The entire film has a slightly subdued feeling to it where it doesn't have to necessarily go for the big kill to feel as if it goes as far as we need it to. The opening scene is a perfect example of this. There aren't masses of people despite the fact it is chronicling the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and the initial explosion takes place miles away only to sweep over Logan and a young Japanese soldier he feels compelled to save. The scene is quick and executed with a careful hand that while focusing on the urge Logan inherently has to find justice in all situations also sets up a relationship that will come back around in the present day. Having sought out the Wolverine in his current state of seclusion, Yukio (Rila Fukushima in her first feature role) convinces a reluctant Logan to come with her to Japan so that he may make amends with the young man he saved, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi). Yashida has gone on to become an extremely wealthy businessman but is currently in an extremely fragile state that tends to make us think there is more to his courtship of Logan than simply wanting to say goodbye. Yashida's son, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) is anxious to take over his fathers empire while its clear Shingen's daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) will inherit the family business instead of him. These family dynamics come to a head at Yashida's funeral where Mariko is kidnapped by unknown mafia types and Logan's natural instinct to defend puts him right in the middle of things while only leading to the discovery that someone has tampered with his mortality.

Going back to the point of the subdued tone of the film, director Mangold has chosen to play things a little closer to the chest as he doesn't enlist the help of a major villain or any other big name stars besides Jackman to replace what is simply a genuinely interesting movie about the most popular X-Men among the masses. To get that point across Mangold and original screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) with a second pass from Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) and Scott Frank (Minority Report) have diverted our protagonist from the beaten path and instead of placing him the middle of a war on his home turf with evil forces he is well aware of they take him away from the familiar and put him in a world where he sticks out like a sore thumb. In this place full of tradition and honor, things very much in line with the samurai way of thinking we have this outsider who is accustomed to chaos. It is an interesting dynamic and the way it plays out is engaging based simply on seeing Logan react to the situations his new environment presents him with. Not to mention, this also aids the entire film in feeling more like a stand alone Wolverine movie than Origins ever did. What I came to really appreciate about the film was the way in which it treated our titular character as more of a basic human than most of the previous films. Whereas before Wolverine has always been more of an animal than a man and when focusing on a group you don't have as much time to devote to the personal conflicts of each character, here we get to see what Wolverine does when he isn't necessarily in a position of requirement to fight back. When he reaches Japan and begins to understand the issues going on within the family and as the layers begin to be peeled back as to what role each character plays and their motivations for being connected with Yashida we, as Logan does, feel as if we become a part of the conflict and for some reason have a personal responsibility to both find out why he was truly brought there in the first place and that the right person is left standing when the dust settles. Through all of this Jackman gives one of his best and most intimidating performances as the mutant. He is a complete beast in the way he approaches things while still maintaining that neutral attitude that makes him so appealing and fun to watch.

Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) tries the intimidation game with Wolverine.
There are naturally a few aspects of the film that don't work as well as I might have expected. The trailers pushed a samurai element to the fighting style of the film that I may not fully have appreciated for I'm not well versed in Japanese or samurai films, but I did find the majority of these action scenes thrilling nonetheless. The standout is the fight atop a bullet train where Wolverine and a mafia thug duke it out at over three hundred miles an hour. It is fantastic to watch on the big screen and one of those moments you realize will be memorable as you're watching it. The early battles that include Yukio kicking serious ass are invigorating for the film while the one that is least compelling is the final stand off between Logan, Yukio, and Mariko's former boyfriend Harada (Will Yun Lee) who drifts in and out of the story as they face off against the Silver Smaurai which is more a transformer shaped like a samurai and the depressingly under-developed Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova who doesn't do great ADR work) who comes in early as the doctor to Yashida and looks poised to be an essential baddie, but rarely shows up throughout the film only to have unnecessary elements of her mutation show up in the final act that feel more show than tell. This is somewhat underwhelming as their really isn't any extraneous mutant involvement in the story, but the marketing campaign placed Viper as a key antagonist. Her role is little more than a supporting character who was hired by Yashida to develop the mutations of Logan for himself. This storyline provides us our climactic battle scene, but it is the other that has Logan protecting Mariko and their developing relationship that guides us through the majority of the film as he struggles with his immortal existence and if finding peace in a human death would ever be possible. The film has interesting avenues it likes to explore and for the most part it does its job of painting a clearer picture of Wolverine and his constant struggles against himself and the experiences that might lead him to him overcoming a few of them. In a summer with several bombastic super hero movies it is a nice to have a comic book flick that looks at itself on a smaller scale with a more subdued attitude and is executed all for the sake of saving the character instead of the world.