One of the best things to come out of the first three X-Men movies was the casting of Hugh Jackman as the feral, adamantium clawed Wolverine. I was amazed at just how well Jackman embodied the look, attitude, and violence of one of Marvel’s most popular characters. While the trilogy’s final X-Men flick was an utter disappointment, Jackman never failed to be convincing. But even his personality and gravitas couldn’t save the mess that was “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, a spin-off film intended to build on the success of the character. It was a wreck plagued by poor writing and poor execution.
But that disaster didn’t sink Jackman’s Wolverine adventure. Now four years later we have another attempt at giving us a good stand alone movie. It’s simply titled “The Wolverine” and let me start by saying it’s a considerably better film. In fact, it’s not only better, it’s a really good summer superhero flick anchored by a good story, fantastic action, and yet another great performance from Jackman. It’s a pleasant surprise that helps wipe the last unmitigated travesty from my memory.
“The Wolverine” takes our indestructible anti-hero to Japan, a place where (in comic book mythology) he has strong ties. Logan (Jackman) finds himself to be an emotional wreck. Driven by the pain of Jean Grey’s (Famke Janssen) death in “The Last Stand”, he lives in a secluded mountain cave, vowing to never hurt anyone again. But wouldn’t it be a boring movie if he kept that vow? Logan encounters a secretive Japanese woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who convinces him to come to Japan to say goodbye to a dying past acquaintance. Once there he finds himself wrapped up in a web of family dysfunction, political corruption, and organized crime. With his healing powers mysteriously targeted, he finds himself vulnerable for the first time and threatened by an assortment of baddies.
The vast majority of the film takes place in Japan and it works wonderfully. The locations and environments look great and the setting and the story meld to perfection. It’s also helped by an array of interesting characters. Haruhiko Yamanouchi plays Logan’s old acquaintance Yashida, a billionaire technology mogul now on his deathbed. Svetlana Khodchenkova plays an American nurse hired to keep Yashida alive. The fantastic Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada plays Yashida’s son, a man knee-deep with mob ties. The beautiful Tao Okamoto is great as Yashido’s beloved granddaughter Mariko. Will Yun Lee is quite fun as Kenuichio Harada, a shadowy character with mixed motivations. Fanboys like me will recognize that name as the original Silver Samurai. Sadly this is a much different role but he’s still very good.
All of these characters flourish in a sharp and entertaining script that never loses sight of what it is. It perfectly utilizes Jackman’s abilities to channel a tortured soul mixed with a volatile and violent nature. He’s such a fascinating character. I also have to applaud the special touches brought by director James Mangold. Even when his handheld camera becomes a bit disorienting, he still gives the movie a beautiful visual flair. But as you know, Wolverine is all about the action. The fight scenes are great and there’s one particular chase sequence through the streets and shops of Tokyo that I really liked.
Yet while the action was very good, I never got past the feeling that Mangold was holding back. Obviously the studios wanted a PG-13 movie and I get that. But Wolverine’s special brand of action mixed with this particular story seemed to be begging for a grittier and more violent edge. And I have to mention that the movie does raise some pretty big questions in the final act. Questions based more on inconsistencies and gaps and logic. In other words, it had its share of head scratching moments. It also occasionally flirts with cliché yet thankfully never fully embraces it. Most importantly, none of these blemishes dampened my enjoyment of this film.
“The Wolverine” may have been lost in the shadows of bigger 2013 comic book movies such as “Iron Man 3” and “Man of Steel” but it deserves its place at the table. Jackman hasn’t lost a step and his charisma and physicality ooze from every scene. And unlike the earlier “Iron Man 3”, this felt more like a Marvel superhero experience – a great central character, an exciting story, some awesome action, and a mid-credits secret scene that instantly amped me up for what’s next. In other words, “The Wolverine” is a really good movie and one of the better surprises of the year.