The Wolverine (2013) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, some sexuality and language
Running time: 126 min.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Famke Janssen, Brian Tee, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Will Yun Lee, Ken Yamamura
Cameo: Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart
Director: James Mangold
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank
The Wolverine is the second attempt at a spinoff Wolverine adventure, and while this is better than the last try, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it does fall short of the pleasures of seeing Logan (Jackman, Les Miserables) as part of the X-Men ensemble. Origins had agitated fans by a story that lacked sizzle, and for changing far too much of Wolverine's origin, while also tampering too much with other characters to the point where they were hardly recognizable, particularly in the fate of fan-favorite character, Deadpool. This version partially rectifies the errors by going back to the Wolverine solo roots from the comics that spurred on the popularity of the titular hero.
The story starts during the waning days of World War II just prior to the bombing of Nagasaki. The seemingly immortal Logan is a POW who ends up saving a young Japanese soldier named Yashida (Yamamura) from certain death when the nuclear explosion decimates the area. We flash forward to today, in self-imposed exile in the Western Canadian wilderness, where Logan is still haunted by the memories of Jean Grey (Janssen, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters), the woman he loved and eventually killed, who appears to him in dreams in which she beckons him to come to her, meaning, in death they can be reunited. It is there that he is approached by crimson-haired Yukio (Fukushima), a skilled Japanese fighter with mutant powers of knowing when people are going to die. Yukio tells him that tech corp. magnate Yashida (Yamanouchi, Push), who is now one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful men, would like Logan's presence in Japan to say a proper goodbye before his passing.
Yashida makes Logan a tempting offer: transfer his powers of immortality to him so he can finally be mortal and have a chance of reuniting with his beloved Jean in the afterlife. But before this can happen, yakuza infiltrate the facility, and Logan ends up being the de facto guardian to Yashida's granddaughter, Mariko (Okamoto), who inherits 100% of the family fortune. Mariko is kidnapped, Logan is righteously pissed, but his powers of healing have suddenly been on the wane, which means he can now be injured, and potentially die. The plot thickens as it is discovered there is far more at stake in this family squabble over Yashida's will than would appear.
The Wolverine is directed by James Mangold, who made the excellent flicks Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma, and written by Mark Bomback (Total Recall, Live Free or Die Hard) and Scott Frank (The Lookout, The Interpreter); it is a respectable effort. It by and large ignores Origins and concentrates on events that transpire after X-Men: The Last Stand, and does so by taking Wolverine back to a wildly popular early 1980s comic book story arc popularized in a "Wolverine" limited series by author Chris Claremont and illustrator Frank Miller. In a bold move, Wolverine is removed from his traditional superhero surroundings into a smaller scale storyline involving a family, honor and dishonor, faith and betrayal, mystery and revelations, and warring underground factions in Japanese society. Science fiction and action elements are still there, but they take a back seat much of the time to the interpersonal connections of the characters.
Though the story has origins from a classic "X-Men" story, it's still interesting to see in such a high budget production that the bulk of the cast would be relatively unknown and inexperienced actors, portraying mostly Japanese characters. The closest thing the film has to a traditional super-villain nemesis is the statuesque Viper, one of the biologists working on Yashida's quest for immortality, whose serpentine tongue and venomous spitting feels somewhat out of place with the story, but is mostly in keeping with the vibe of the film series thus far. Viper is played by Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), though it would appear that her voice is dubbed over by another actress with a more American accent.
The tone is a bit more somber and less jokey than we're accustomed to from the X-Men films, so some fans of the movies may not like the uprooting of Wolverine to the Japanese setting, and the resulting long stretches of drama and thriller elements, in addition to a not-terribly-convicting romance, that develop from the psychological premise. There are a few action set pieces thrown in, and quite good ones generally, including a very exciting battle on the top of a bullet train going 300 miles per hour. The final half hour also has no shortage of action, though the story developments that eventually emerge do seem to take the tone of the film back into standard comic book territory, rather than maintain the established dramatic sense of the rest of the film. Where it should feel invigorating, the epic final battle seems deflating and the mild poignancy the storyline had built up begins to vanish.
Nevertheless, it's fun to see Jackman in the role that propelled him to stardom again, still physically looking like he could kick some serious butt now into his 40s, and his ability to dole out off-the-cuff retorts gets the bulk of the downbeat film's laughs. It may not be the thrilling solo Wolverine adventure we've been waiting for, but it is, at the very least, one worthy of respect. While The Wolverine may lose itself in its all-out melee finale, it's doubtful that fans will come away disappointed, though those not invested in the character may choose to give this rather superfluous entry in the X-Men series a pass.
X-Men movie fans should definitely stay through a bit of the closing credits for a slightly lengthy extra teaser of things to come.
©2013 Vince Leo