Monday, July 29, 2013

THE WOLVERINE: Finally ... The Claws Come Out


- If I've had any one problem with the modern-day X-MEN film franchise, it's that it's always, to me, felt sort of middle-of-the-road. The team's colorful comic book origins were greyed-out (both literally and figuratively), and characters like Wolverine, at times, seemed to lose a bit of their bite. Growing up, Wolverine was always the badass berzerker - the furry ball of rage and bad-attitude whose feral nature made him a less-than-ideal team player. Echoes of the classic Wolvie have shown up in previous X-films, but the Hugh Jackman version has always felt slightly whitewashed. His was Wolverine-as-heartthrob - a gruff-but-lovable loner who felt slightly de-clawed. It's no wonder then that fans responded to the moments in the films when Logan was allowed to unleash his inner badass - his rage in the X-mansion in X-Men 2, or his brief but kickass cameo in First Class.

Sadly, the first Wolverine solo flick, Origins, was sort of a mess. Marred by a weak script and an overload of misused characters, it performed well at the box office, but fizzled with fans. Now though, THE WOLVERINE aims to take things back to basics - mining the classic Chris Claremont / Frank Miller Logan stories from the 80's, in order to present a darker, grittier, streamlined Wolverine story.

Whatever else there is to say about THE WOLVERINE, I give it credit for getting the basics right. On a macro level, this is the Wolverine solo movie that fans have always wanted. It's Wolverine in Japan, on a violent quest to protect a mysterious woman. It is a Wolverine struggling to reconcile his humanity with his animalistic, mutant side - who is grappling with the potential for a normal life vs. the instinct to be a wandering warrior - a ronin. This is a Wolverine movie that directly references the Claremont/Miller classics. It finally introduces Logan's Japanese love interest, Mariko. And it mostly adheres to the pulp-noir, stripped-down sensibilities that Miller brought to the character way back when.

And after all this time, it feels like a slightly older and more grizzled Hugh Jackman has now grown into the role of Wolverine, perhaps more so than ever before. Freed from being just a cog in a large ensemble cast, Jackman has room to breathe here, and to give some additional heft and texture to his performance that I don't think we've seen in previous outings. Jackman does a great job of conveying Logan's inner turmoil - his guilt at having killed Jean Grey in X-3, his creeping doubts about his mutant gene-enabled immortality, and his reluctance to get back into action - after retreating to a life of relative solidarity in the Canadian wilderness. Jackman also does a nice job of dialing up the gruffness. This feels like a legitimately dark and gritty version of Logan - and not the sanitized, PG-ified version from other movies. The added depth in the character is a welcome byproduct of a more mature movie, overall, than what's come before.

That said, director James Mangold seems to waiver between dark n' gritty and more standardized Hollywood blockbuster sheen. The movie *is* dark, and there are times where I was almost reminded of the aesthetics of 70's crime thrillers in the way that Mangold keeps things, mostly, grounded and street-level. At the same time, it doesn't feel like he quite pushes things far enough. The movie never quite jumps off the cliff, keeping at least one foot in the familiar waters of the Marvel movie house-style. Mangold also tends to break up the gritty mood with various scenes that burst forth with more standard-issue Hollywood blockbuster trappings. Some of the movie's more colorful villains, for example - like the poisonous Viper or the robo-assassin Silver Samurai, seem present more to up the film's f/x quota as opposed to any real necessity story-wise.

Mangold does do a nice job with the film's action scenes - giving us a level of brutality that we haven't yet seen in any X-flick. In particular, there is a riveting battle atop a moving bullet train that, I have to say, is one of the best action scenes in any Summer blockbuster this year. It's over-the-top, sure, but it's also thrilling, visceral, and nail-biting. It does sort of reinforce the movie's conflicted nature - trying to be both a stripped-down character piece and also a big-time blockbuster. But I also can't deny that it's an awesome sequence.

The Wolverine does, however, suffer from a problem that is becoming increasingly notable in blockbuster films - plots that are unnecessarily convoluted. I said earlier that THE WOLVERINE really nails it on a macro level - taking a commendable back-to-basics approach. But on a micro level, the details of the plot, the various characters, and their motivations - it amounts to a rather labyrinthine web that moviegoers are going to be hard-pressed to make sense of.

The main plotline involves Logan being summoned to Japan by an old friend named Yashida. During World War II, Logan saved Yashida from the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki by getting him into a bunker in the nick of time. From that point on, Yashida became fascinated with Logan's mutant abilities. Now, elderly and dying - and the billionaire head of a large Japanese corporation - Yashida summons Logan to make him an offer. Yashida wants to drain Logan's mutant abilities, giving him the opportunity to live a normal, mortal life. In exchange, Yashida will gain Wolverine's healing abilities and be able to recover from his ailments - essentially unlocking a fountain of youth. Meanwhile, there is the matter of who will inherit Yashida Industries should its founder die. A war is brewing between Yashida's scheming son - who has ties to the Yakuza - and his beloved granddaughter, Mariko. Yashida sees the kind-hearted Mariko as the natural inheritor of his empire, but her father, Shingen, is not happy about being passed over.

Logan finds himself caught in the middle of these various power struggles, and over the course of the movie, he's pitted against a long line of adversaries. How all of the movie's various villains relate or don't relate to each other is sort of a tangled web - and it's often unclear who, exactly, is after Logan, and why. And yet, the film builds towards a pretty obvious endgame that comes off as a bit cartoonish given what's come before. Point being: when the movie focuses on being a simple tale of Logan-as-ronin, on-the-run, seeking answers, and grappling with his emerging feelings for Mariko - it really works. But that dynamic is undermined repeatedly, especially in the film's final act, by all the various plot convolutions and excessive characters - few of whom really leave an impression.

The one supporting character who is the clear show-stealer is Rila Fukushima's Yukio. Yukio - Yashida's adoptive daughter, and Mariko's friend and protector, is quite simply a badass. Fukushima's unique and striking look makes Yukio instantly compelling, but it's her uneasy alliance with Logan that takes the character to the next level. Yukio gives the film a great female hero who can go toe to toe with even Wolverine.

Mariko, on the other hand, is a little more of a mixed bag. Tao Okamoto is good in the role, but an extra scene or two between her and Jackman might have helped prevent their relationship from feeling just a bit boilerplate. The character also falls a little too much into the standard damsel-in-distress tropes. Part of the film's theme is Logan-as-protector ... so it mostly fits. But Mariko could have used a bit more fleshing out, so as not to feel so one-note. Overall though, Okamoto does some strong work, and there is a sort of interesting dynamic between Mariko and Logan - with Mariko having grown up hearing legends of the mythical Wolverine. Plus, in Mariko, Logan sees the kind of nice girl who he could maybe settle down and drink sake with - so there's that. She represents the quiet life that he could likely never have.

It should also be noted that Famke Janssen pops up throughout the film as Jean Grey, haunting Logan's unconscious mind, appearing to him in dreams. I enjoyed Janssen's inclusion in the film, although I can see how this may eventually be referred to half-jokingly as "that movie where Wolverine wakes up over and over." Suffice it to say, the Logan-wakes-up-disoriented-and-confused moment is used a couple times too many in the movie.

Ultimately, I think the *idea* of THE WOLVERINE is a bit more compelling than the execution. The movie hits a lot of the right broad strokes, but on a scene-by-scene level, it's up-and-down. The first act is the movie's strongest - when the movie really seems to have this Frank Miller-esque grittiness and moodiness. Later, it gets bogged down by too much plot and too many villains, and things begin to collapse under all of the accumulated weight. Luckily, there's a fun, geek-out-worthy post-credits teaser to make sure things end on a high note - setting the stage, just a bit, for the next X-film: Days of Future Past. Even if THE WOLVERINE doesn't hit a home run, it's still nice to know that we got this well-intentioned, reasonably badass Wolverine solo movie before Days of Future Past unleashes a full-on X-epic.

My Grade: B


  1. Great review, Danny! It was so refreshing to just be with Logan on his own as he deals with his existential crisis as the stakes are mostly Logan fighting for his own meaning. I loved the grounded, intimate feel of it all-- this was really just Wolverine's Japanese Adventure. As much as I like how interconnected the Marvel Universe is, it was nice to see more of a standalone film (aside for the last couple minutes, which you know was awesome).

    I'm surprised you didn't bag on Viper -- she was the weakest part for me. Every time she talked, I kept thinking Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy.

    Thanks for the review!

  2. Hi Pauline - thanks! I thought I did bag on Viper a bit? Agree she was the weakest part of the movie.