Wolverine is a loner and The Wolverine serves him right. A follow-up to the bloated X-Men Origins: Wolverine and set after the events of the original X-Men trilogy, director James Mangold defies the standards of the modern comic book movie to deliver a thriller with a shaded character at its heart. Finally, a story about Logan (Hugh Jackman), his penchant for viciousness, his conflicts over immortality, and the gravitational force that keeps pulling him back into heroism, time and time again. Mangold streamlines the narrative into a brooding ninja adventure and, even with other X-Men movies on the horizon, creates stakes worthy of nail-biting. The Wolverine is Jackman’s movie to sink his claws into and he complies with full force.
Years after killing Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who transformed into a destructive telekinetic in X-Men: The Last Stand, Wolverine lies dormant in the forests of Canada. He’s haunted by Jean’s ghost. He allows depression to take hold of him. He tries to cut himself off from the world. He fails.
After a group of bear poachers provoke him out of hibernation, Wolverine’s presence is requested by Kenuichio Harada, a Japanese businessman with ties to Logan’s past. The billionaire’s aide Yukio (Rila Fukushima) doesn’t take “no” for answer, and soon Wolverine is jetting to Tokyo. When he arrives, Harada reveals that he is dying, and that he needs a favor from an old friend. The two had met before during World War II, when Wolverine saved the former solider’s life during the bombing of Nagasaki. Harada summons Logan in hopes of returning the favor; he has a found a way to transfer the healing mutation from one person to another. If Wolverine will grant Harada his power, the infallible X-Man can become a normal person, and die like the rest of humanity is meant to do. Conflicted, Wolverine gracefully declines.
The script by Mark Bomback, Scott Frank and Christopher McQuarrie is a dense mystery that envelops Wolverine. If he could look away from problems that needed solving, the adventure would be over 20 minutes in. But that’s not our hero. With Harada’s inevitable death, his granddaughter, Mariko Yashida (Tao Okamoto), will become owner of his conglomerate and Target Number One for the Yakuza crime families. An attack on Mariko at Harada’s funeral thrusts Wolverine into rage mode, turning him into the unspoken protector of his old friend’s heir until the perpetrators can be sliced to bits.
There is a whole lot of genre busting out of The Wolverine. Jackman transforms Wolverine into a Clint Eastwood “Man with No Name” type, even squinting in the blinding light like Western hero might. He’s deadlier than ever, evident from his close-combat fights with hoards of bad guys. For the first time, we see Wolverine use his claws like the blade weapons they are. He plunges them into uzi-wielding gangsters and sheds blood. This is a real situation. People could die. When they cross paths with Logan, they do. CG is kept to a minimum because of the real world situations, adding to the thrills. The much-touted railway sequence, in which Wolverine busts up a trio of goons on the roof of the speeding bullet train, employs effects work with restraint. The velocity is successfully created on screen, and while the men fight for the lives from each other, they’re also clinging to the train.
The Wolverine is the rare action movie with personal stakes, accomplished with comic book flourishes. Wolverine becomes poisoned by Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), an assassin with reptilian mutations of her own. He is temporarily stripped of his powers, and suddenly a bullet to the chest hurts. Mangold introduces this awakening once in the funeral attack so that we understand it. When Wolverine is eventually shot up by gangsters, that hint of danger from earlier comes back to hit us like a ton of bricks. This is the excellence of Jackman’s performance, coping with the pain of the past as he’s pummeled by a new kind of pain in the present. The danger in The Wolverine is real, and in 2013, that’s a revelation.
Mangold isn’t afraid of being too “comic booky.” There was a heightened, fantastical nature to the samurai/ninja pictures of the ’50s and he translates that for a modern audience. Characters live by a code, ninjas stalk in the shadows, warriors prey with seemingly superhuman skills. Wolverine fits right into the mold. By the time the grand finale — big and ridiculous and balls-out fun — rolls around, Mangold has built the foundation to support it. The popular Silver Samurai gets his moment in the sun when he goes toe-to-toe with Wolverine and even at its wildest, the movie reminds us that it’s real. The impact of a sword leaves a cut, a fall three stories down huts like hell, and a set of drills going into a person’s hand draws blood. It doesn’t hurt that most of The Wolverine is shot on real locations, adding to the tangibility. Like last year’s Skyfall, Mangold breaks free of Hollywood convention to tell a moody, emotional story tucked inside an action blockbuster. The Wolverine marks Jackman’s sixth time playing his iconic superhero role. It feels like the first.
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