The Wolverine Review
The X-Men franchise rehabilitation continues apace with The Wolverine, a sturdy second spin-off for the mutton-chopped, metal-boned mutant. Arriving in the wake of 2011’s fast-paced First Class, and with one eye on next year’s sure-to-be-epic Days of Future Past, this new entry is akin to a pause for breath, centring as it does on its lone character and a relatively grounded, more intimate story (for a comic book adaptation at least). It’s a refreshing change of pace, noticeably helped by relocating the action to Japan, and it gives room for star Hugh Jackman - notching up a sixth appearance in the role - to counterbalance his usual aggressive action scenes with a few quieter moments of character drama.
That said, there’s not much here that we haven’t seen before, including the plot, which once again revolves around someone who’s interested in acquiring Wolverine’s unique self-healing ability for their own ends. Set some time after the events of 2006’s The Last Stand, Logan has become a drifter, unable to fit in anywhere or find a cause worth fighting for. Out of the blue he is contacted by the rather fetching but deadly Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who has been asked by her employer to bring Logan to Japan. Said employer turns out to be a former wartime Japanese soldier, whose life Logan saved when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and who now, on his deathbed, wants to return the favour by helping Logan become mortal. But it becomes clear there is more at play than meets the eye, including the yakuza, ninjas and a struggle for control of the powerful Yashida Corporation.
What immediately distinguishes this entry from the character’s earlier solo outing (2009’s disjointed X-Men Origins: Wolverine) is the greater confidence in its tone. Director James Mangold gives as much screen time to the quieter moments as the action scenes, and the result is a much smoother ride. Mark Bomback and Scott Frank’s script, loosely based on a fan favourite story from 1982 by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, plonks an emotionally sore Wolverine down in a country he knows nothing about and which feels entirely alien to him, but where paradoxically he seems to fit in. Something of a culture where matters of honour still hold sway begins to rub off on him; a sense of purpose begins to return that disappeared when the X-Men were all but wiped out.
Someone calls him a ronin - a samurai without a master - and that aimlessness about his life is reinforced by recurring visions of the late Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the woman he loved but was forced to kill at the end of The Last Stand. As a narrative device it’s a touch hokey, but it’s in keeping with the comic book origins of the story, and written and played straight enough to help us root for the big guy. Weighed down by years of loss and hurt, the pain is finally beginning to tell for Logan, even as the spectre of mortality closes in on him. Jackman’s performance feels slightly different than before, more world-weary; the advantage of playing a character so many times is that we can see the history behind the eyes. Here he’s forced to deal not only with a society he doesn’t understand, but other aspects of life that are foreign to him too, like politics and business. Whether Mangold makes as much of all this as he might is debateable, but it’s a flavoursome concoction all the same.
Lest you fear this new entry is all about the soppy stuff, don’t panic: The Wolverine still kicks ass. The bullet train sequence around the midway point is worth cheering for alone, recalling the conclusion to the first Mission: Impossible movie, while the climactic showdown in a mountaintop fortress manages to pull off the not-inconsiderable feat of making us fear for the life of a man who is more or less immortal. Naturally, given the setting, there are plenty of samurai swords and elite ninja warriors flying about the screen too, contrasting sharply with Wolverine’s more traditional use of fists and muscle. It’s business as usual in many ways then, but there’s plenty for longtime X-fans to love. And the post-credits scene is a doozy.