Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Wolverine / *** (PG-13)

Logan/Wolverine: Hugh Jackman
Mariko: Tao Okamoto
Yukio: Rila Fukushima
Shingen: Hiroyuki Sanada
Viper: Svetlana Khodchenkova
Noburo: Brian Tee
Yashima: Haruhiko Yamanouchi
Harada: Will Yun Lee
Jean Grey: Famke Janssen

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by James Mangold. Written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. Based on the Marvel Comics character. Running time: 126 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language).

Before it opened, the best thing “The Wolverine” had going for it was that it couldn’t be worse than 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”. That film might’ve been a sign of over-eagerness on the studio’s part to continue the X-Men franchise about the Marvel Comics mutant superhero team. They tapped a visionary director in Gavin Hood, but he was inexperienced in Hollywood and may have allowed the executives too much input in the final product. It was also confusing for audiences to delve into the origin of the team’s most popular member, Wolverine, since the secrecy of his origin has always been one of the character’s appealing qualities. His mutant healing factor means that he may be hundreds of years old, and few writers have been willing to lift the cloud of mystery about his actual origins. So the film was a patchwork version of violence with a large number of new mutants introduced that made it a jumbled mess of special effects and nonsense.

This time around the director is an experienced Hollywood visionary, and the writers wisely chose to go down a different path for the hero and introduce some of the Eastern notions that made him the most popular of the mutants back in the 80s. “The Wolverine” concerns little of what has come before in the “X-Men” and instead follows Wolverine from his self-imposed exile in the Canadian winter wilderness to Japan where a man he saved during the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb in WWII is on his deathbed. There are a couple of other mutants introduced, but Mark Bomback’s and Scott Frank’s script wisely avoids saturating their foreign environment with a lot of superpowers, allowing them to concentrate on the notion that Wolverine is like the former Japanese samurai known as the Ronin, who was a samurai without a master and therefore without purpose.

Director James Mangold is an excellent choice for this material as he has proven in the past that he can direct Hollywood action fare in films like “Knight and Day”, but also has a great sense of the western ideals found at the heart of the Japanese samurai picture, which were their answer to our western. Mangold directed the excellent remake of “3:10 to Yuma”. Here he paints a picture of Wolverine as the lone warrior, even when he has the help of others. He has special powers that he relies on, yet when they’re taken away he can’t help but continue to fight for justice.

Like many a western hero, he faces the demons of his past daily. He killed the love of his life, the mutant Jean Grey, in “X-Men: The Last Stand”. She haunts him despite the fact that she had turned evil before he killed her. She killed his mentor, Professor X, before her death, and so he left the X-Men, which is where the Ronin theme really takes root. I’ve heard some criticism about the dream sequences with Jean Grey, which I don’t understand. Without the dream sequences there is little to explore about the inner struggle of Logan’s life. How do you go on when everyone you’ve ever loved has died? Logan has no choice because of his mutant powers.

Mangold makes the best of his Japan setting, taking the action from scenic rural settings to downtown Tokyo to a spectacular fight on top of the high-speed bullet train. After the death of Yashima, the man who Wolverine saved in WWII, his granddaughter, Mariko, is attacked by the Yakuza. Wolverine makes it his duty to protect the woman with the help of her childhood friend and surrogate sister, Yukio. Yukio has a slight mutant power, the ability to foresee people’s deaths, but she has extreme sword fighting skills. There is another mutant, named Viper, who seems to be at the heart of the plot to kidnap Mariko, but her motives are kept secret until the final act.

“The Wolverine” isn’t the best comic book superhero movie of the summer, but it’s a return to form for the Hugh Jackman vehicle of Wolverine. Mangold knows how to put together a good summer blockbuster, and he does it here. It doesn’t have the depth of the “Iron Man” movies or the wit of “The Avengers”, but it has good action that isn’t just a jumble cut of what ever falls on the editing room floor. It has a solid story, and provides about the most catharsis possible for a brute character like Wolverine. Be sure to stick around for a credit cookie that teases next year’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past”. It seems Fox has taken a queue from the Marvel Avengers pictures and allowed their characters to exist in their own stories, while still being part of a larger universe.

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