Logan - 4K Ultra HD Review
In keeping with another recently reviewed film which saw a grizzled gunslinger get pulled back into his former life, Hugh Jackman returned as the hirsute Marvel anti-hero Wolverine for one last time in James Mangold’s Logan. Taking place in a dusty, run-down 2029 where mutant-kind has been all but eradicated we find Wolverine/Logan working as a limo driver, tending to a frail Charles Xavier whose incredible telepathic power is now a dangerous liability thanks to his failing mental state. Watched over by the mutant tracker Caliban out in the New Mexico desert, the two former X-Men had thought their days of heroism were over…until a feral young girl is placed in their care by a desperate lab worker, putting the Reavers – sinister special-ops agents of the Transigen corporation – onto their scent. With Logan’s body breaking down as his healing ability slows to a crawl and the girl revealing mysterious powers of her own they head off to find a rumoured mutant utopia in the mountains, trying to stay one step ahead of the Reavers, and they discover more about themselves than they ever dared imagine.
Mangold had previous directed 2013’s The Wolverine which cleansed the franchise’s cinematic palate of the dire X-Men Origins: Wolverine, offering up a film which examined this reluctant hero in more detail but which inevitably fell prey to the demands of PG-13 comic book action fayre by lapsing into an overblown CG-fuelled final showdown. An unrated extended version containing more swearing and violence was released on Blu-ray and the response was so popular amongst fans that it led into the discussion about making the follow-up a hard R (adult) rating, a discussion which was likely aided by the storming box office success of Deadpool in 2016, itself an adults-only dive into the X-Men movie mythos (albeit with a somewhat, ah, more humourous slant). But with Jackman expressing a desire to hang up the mutton-chop sideburns for good then thematically the movie would also have to shift in that direction, and Mangold’s film wears its influences proudly, taking in some of the great Westerns as well as road movies like Paper Moon.
Naturally there would also be overtures made to adapting certain aspects of the X-Men comic books, amongst them Old Man Logan which sees an ageing Wolverine in a post-apocalyptic landscape, although there far more of X-23’s DNA in this particular film. But Mangold’s desire as both co-writer and director was to tell a story which was largely self-contained, which didn’t have to rely on endless reams of extant X-Men lore, be it film-based or funny-book. And just as The Wolverine paid little heed to the movie before it (with only a credits stinger at the very end to tie it in with the subsequent X-Men: Days of Future Past) Logan does the same. It waves away most of the fevered fan discussion/speculation about timelines and alternate realities and where this movie fits into the X-Men cinematic canon, establishing its own future history which is slowly unravelled as the movie progresses. But, if it simply had to be quantified, it appears to take place in the pre-DoFP timeline as some events of the original X-Men trilogy are referred to.
Being R-rated naturally means that it’s got plenty of cursing and blood-letting as Logan slices and dices his way through his enemies in more gory detail than ever before, yet Mangold has stated that his desire to make an adult-oriented Wolverine film wasn’t just because of these superficial aspects (the swearing can seem a bit too over-eager at times) but also because it meant he wouldn’t be beholden to making a hyperactive action blockbuster aimed at tweens. Not that Mangold's performance-based style ever gave way to the kind of editing blitzkrieg that blights action movies today, not even in the more commercially rated The Wolverine, but here the rating truly allows the movie room to breathe, to permit the characters to go on their respective journeys without the need for a major set-piece designed to sell LEGO action sets every 20 minutes. And when the action does come it’s very raw and stripped down, with brutal combat scenes and a brief car chase that Mangold uses to defy certain genre clichés. The highlight is an offbeat fight sequence staged during one of Xavier's catastrophic seizures which freezes everyone in their tracks, the entire image physically shaking while the subject (Logan, in this case) struggles against the psychic onslaught to dispatch some Transigen goons.
For a film that has to rely as much upon its characters as Logan does the casting was of prime importance to the endeavour and Hugh Jackman, here in his 9th outing as the Wolverine (including the cameos), is simply magnificent. Mangold has made sure to challenge his lead actor, to take him to places that Wolverine has never gone before on-screen. Logan is troubled not just by his decaying body but by his place in the world, the movie taking the step of actually showing X-Men comic books and how Xavier’s kids were idolised by the public before it all fell apart, taking its cue from Unforgiven as to how these characters inspire mythical tales amongst normal folk and how Logan struggles to reconcile his heroic status with the wreck he’s become - all of which Jackman conveys admirably. Sir Patrick Stewart plays off him beautifully as Xavier (Stewart declaring that this would be his last X-Men rodeo too), this fragile old man also lamenting what once was - when he’s actually compos mentis enough to realise it that is. Stewart delivers a finely balanced mix of the mournful and the manic, effortlessly alternating between them. Stephen Merchant completes this sad little triumvirate with a very down-to-earth performance as Caliban, one that even retains his native Gloucestershire accent which makes placing in him in this uniquely American environment jarring and yet a perfect fit for this quirky albino mutant at the same time.
However, the true breakout performance of the show belongs to none of these fine gentlemen but to a young lady of Spanish/British descent named Dafne Keen who plays Laura, the strange girl who ends up in Logan’s care. What’s extraordinary is that it’s a performance of two halves, each as expertly portrayed as the other: first the mute savage who only grunts and growls in between her bouts of berserker rage, and then the feisty Mexican spitfire who won’t stop talking as she tries to track down others like her. Keen is as adept at conveying a breadth of emotion with a single stare as she is with recounting pages of dialogue and it’s a truly remarkable turn; with both of her parents being actors it seems to be in her blood. Boyd Holbrook plays her nemesis Donald Pierce, the head of the Reavers who are out to capture her, and what’s refreshing is that he plays it with little of the histrionics that we typically expect from bad guys in superhero movies. Eriq La Salle of E.R. fame gets a small role as Will Munson (a little tip of the hat towards Unforgiven’s Will Munny, mayhap?), a sympathetic farmer who invites Logan and Xavier for dinner and gets way more than he bargained for, and Elizabeth Rodriguez gets the thankless task of being Gabriela, the info-dumper lab assistant who reveals just who/what Laura actually is. Richard E. Grant rounds off the main cast list as Dr. Rice, the head of the Transigen corporation and as with Holbrook's character he's not some gleeful cackling villain.
The theme of duality weighs heavily upon the film, with mirrors and reflections regularly referenced in the visuals and several stages of Logan's own life are refracted back at him through various characters (quite literally in the case of one baddie, which I won’t spoil here), as well as a family life he’ll never get to experience for himself when he breaks bread at Munson’s dinner table. As with Unforgiven and Shane before it the movie doesn’t shy away from the personal toll of violence, how pervasive a thing it is to take a life and how these characters simply cannot escape their fates. But Logan is not so much about that final destination but the journey itself as Logan and Charles ponder their destiny in the twilight of their lives, regaining some brief shining semblance of what they used to be thanks to this girl and the movie is deeply affecting as a result. It’s a complete u-turn from the gaudy candy-coloured mayhem of X-Men: Apocalypse – Mangold's film having been perfunctorily named for just that reason – but it is quite easily the most emotionally involving X-Men instalment to date as well as being one of the finest comic-book films ever made.
THE 4K BLU-RAY
Logan comes to 4K Ultra HD courtesy of 20th Century Fox in a 3-disc package which contains the 4K UHD colour feature, the 4K Noir (black and white) feature, and the standard 1080p HD colour Blu-ray. The UHD version naturally features a High Dynamic Range (HDR) pass which allows for “brighter brights and darker darks” along with an increased colour gamut, and this 4K presentation is also derived from an actual 4K DI finish. Will wonders never cease? Please note: the screenshots in this review are derived from the 1080p disc and are not strictly representative of the 4K version. Additionally, this review has been carried out on a Sony 65ZD9 display calibrated to the correct colour temperature, greyscale and primary/secondary colour points, fed by a Sony X800 UHD Blu-ray player.
The movie was predominantly shot in anamorphic on the ARRI Alexa XT and Mini, using E-Series glass (created in the 1980’s) for a certain kind of look that’s not as heavily idiosyncratic as pictures shot using the older (c. late 1960’s) C-Series glass or modern-but-old lenses like the Hawk Vintage ‘74’s. What I mean is that the image has the characteristic detail and creaminess of a vintage anamorphic feature but without the creeping sense of softness that some latter-day Directors of Photography (DP’s) regard as a badge of honour when using this classical widescreen format. Indeed, James Mangold wanted to frame the visuals in a way which aped the kind of detail-rich close-to-medium shots seen in older movies precisely because the lenses of yore were not good enough to resolve their subjects from too far away, and DP John Mathieson was happy to oblige him. Certain inserts were captured spherically using the Alexa’s 3.4K Open Gate feature, as is the norm for acquiring things like VFX plates, and the ‘camera phone’ scenes were shot on a consumer Canon FS20 camcorder, with the use of a Blackmagic camera for VFX shots within that context that were then re-photographed on the Canon.
The resulting 4K HDR presentation on this UHD disc is nothing short of gorgeous from start to finish. The detail is richly textured without looking as aggressively sharp as spherical shows often do, revealing every last pore on Logan’s battle-worn face, and as the movie progresses his visage is almost uncomfortable to look at as his wounds accumulate and his healing power deteriorates, with the unsympathetic lighting only enhancing that feeling of unease. Backgrounds often have an ‘out of focus’ appearance but it’s nothing to be alarmed about (I remember arguing about this years ago with someone who’d just bought a new TV, them claiming that ‘it wasn’t like that before’) and this shallow depth of field is partly what gives this anamorphic capture format the unique look that it’s known for. Another little foible is the ‘breathing’ that’s seen whenever the focus changes from foreground to background (or vice versa), the sides of the image appearing to literally expand or contract but, again, it’s perfectly normal and all adds to the flavour.
Colour is represented in a pleasantly neutral manner, not looking to turn blue skies into teal or flesh tones into a one-note yellow wash, with blacks looking black, and this was the express intent of the filmmakers who preferred this kind of natural palette, wanting to represent what was there rather than jazzing it up in the DI colourist's suite. Primaries and secondaries are still conveyed with gusto within this context, like the azure skies of the New Mexico locations and the verdant greens of the forest setting during the final act. Red is used sparingly in the production design itself which leaves the ruby red blood which spurts from the various severed arms and legs and heads to take up the slack. As mentioned, skin tones have a wide amount of variance across Charles’s pale liver-spotted skin, Logan’s increasingly ruddy face, Gabriela’s duskier Mexican hue and Will’s African-American countenance, nuances which don’t seem quite as pronounced on the 1080p Blu-ray.
Black levels are wonderfully dense, often merging with the black widescreen borders of the 2.40 aspect, which is the foundation that gives the image such a strong sense of contrast without looking too dark or too blown out at either end of the scale. Certain scenes still allow you to see into the gloom, the blacks resolving in a slightly lighter fashion during those darker moments. The upper end of the dynamic range is exceedingly well served on this HDR presentation too, as all the little specular touches like lens flares and reflections of the sun off of various surfaces are integrated seamlessly, looking intrinsically naturalistic rather than overtly bright for the sake of it. Mangold likes his lighting style to be more direct, eschewing lots of fill and preferring harder sources which makes his actors look less like perfectly lit movie stars, and those hard light sources are relayed with vibrancy in HDR without wiping out the highlight detail therein. On the normal Blu-ray I can barely read some of the words on the neon billboard at the rest stop in the opening sequence but it’s perfectly legible on the UHD, and many shots of skies are clipped away to flat nothingness on the Blu-ray, like in the shot below:
The standard Blu-ray itself is still a very good 1080p presentation with decent detail and solid blacks like its UHD big brother, but the way that the dynamic range is just pulverised makes it look paler and flatter and less viscerally involving than the UHD, which has a near three-dimensional look to it at times thanks to the level of detail and the contrasty lighting style which really creates a sense of depth. The black and white Noir version that's included is a curio borne out of James Mangold’s monochromatic behind-the-scenes photos which he posted on social media during the making of the film, but on 4K it’s a strangely lacklustre affair, looking somewhat muted whereas I had assumed that the B&W grading would punch up the contrast further. It does however make the allusions to Paper Moon all the more apparent.
Having been shot digitally there is very little in the way of over grain/noise to speak of (aside from in the ‘camera phone’ sequences which is of course entirely intentional) and naturally no dirt or scratches, which makes for an exceedingly clean-looking image. Visible signs of edge enhancement or other sharpening techniques are nowhere to be seen and I didn’t spot a trace of any banding/posterisation throughout the show, not even on the myriad vistas of blue sky which dominate the movie’s visuals. The 137-minute 4K feature has been encoded onto a dual layer 66GB disc and there are no obvious compression problems to report. All in all, this is a visual presentation which may not wow those thirsting for razor-sharp 4K kicks but as a representation of the movie’s intended visuals it’s absolutely flawless and as such gets my highest marks.
On the audio side of things the UHD comes armed with a Dolby Atmos immersive track, listened to as 7.1 TrueHD for the purposes of this review. It's a competent track which doesn't plump for constant surround activity, establishing a regulation sound field which will go big when called upon like during Xavier's grand mal but isn't always 'in your face'. The story is the star, not the sound, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 on the Blu-ray is much the same, albeit sounding a fraction less transparent than the Dolby track.
For the extras we’re given what looks like a standard list: ‘making of’, deleted scenes, commentary and trailers, but in a pleasant surprise this is a rather good package rather than the usual one-note promotional fluff that passes for extras these days. The centrepiece is the documentary, running 76 minutes and playable in six parts or as one seamless presentation, with Mangold, Jackman and various other collaborators chiming in with their take on the project: where it came from, where it’s going, what their objectives were and so on. We get to look at concept art, costume & screen tests as well as lots of behind the scenes footage, and although it’s not as soup-to-nuts comprehensive as the best ‘making ofs’ it’s still a very good effort that is much appreciated.
Mangold’s audio commentary for the main feature repeats a little of what he says in the documentary but is otherwise quite insightful, talking about his directorial style, how he wants his actors lit and so on. He also provides a yak track for seven-odd minutes of deleted scenes, which are mostly inconsequential pieces that were dropped for pacing reasons (incidentally, some of them make more explicit references to the original X-Men films, particularly The Last Stand and X-Men: Origins) but there’s one nice little scene with Logan and Laura which perhaps should’ve been left in. Last up is a set of three trailers, two main theatrical ones and a third which is a ‘Red Band’ version that contains more swearing and blood. Top marks to Fox for including these, not least because they contain the Johnny Cash rendition of NIN's Hurt which must've cost a few shekels to licence. (The video-based extras & commentary are contained on the colour Blu-ray, with the couleur et Noir 4K UHD discs only featuring the audio commentary.)
Hugh Jackman’s final outing as the Wolverine in Logan is a triumph for all concerned and is exquisitely well rendered on this 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, boasting a slick but not overly showy A/V presentation - entirely in-keeping with the film’s intent - and some very good bonus material. Highly recommended.
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