REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Enjoyable if forgettable, The Wolverine’s balancing of comic book superhero adventure and existential thriller never fully engages as either.
SYNOPSIS: Haunted by the death of Jean Grey, Logan travels to Japan to meet with a former Japanese soldier, whom he saved during the bombing of Nagasaki, who offers him the chance to become mortal again.
PROS: Good fight sequence on the outside of a bullet train; humorous sequence as Logan and Mariko check in to a love motel; Rila Fukushima’s Yukio.
CONS: Routine performance by Hugh Jackman as the title character; bland villains and flat suspense; sluggish screenplay riddled with clichés; James Mangold’s uninspired direction.
The Wolverine opens, fittingly, in a POW camp just outside of Nagasaki, Japan, on August 8, 1945. Smoke trails from the ash-blackened landscape into the shrouded skies in a heavy-handed mirror of Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) mental landscape. He finally wakes from the flashback dream of rescuing the soldier Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) in a northwestern forest, his haunted eyes peeking from unkempt hair and scraggly beard, his winter gear far too neat for somebody who has chosen to wander aimlessly after unspecified events have apparently led to the death of his lover Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who now entices him to join her in the hereafter. Director James Mangold seems to want to bring X-Men’s world of mutants into a more earthly realm, but one look at Jackman’s Logan—a four-color Jeremiah Johnson by way of Abercrombie and Fitch and REI—suggests that we’re in for more of the things to which audiences are now all too accustomed when plonking down their sawbucks for a summer superhero movie.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I suppose. Mangold, working with screenwriters Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, and The Way of the Gun writer/director Christopher McQuarrie, injects what suspense and energy he can to Logan’s tale of paradise lost and regained. Sometimes it works quite well, as when Logan finds himself battling a quartet of Yakuza assassins outside a bullet train speeding through modern-day Tokyo (though one never shakes the déjà vu of Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible or Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2). Sometimes it elicits genuine humor, as when Logan and Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Yashida’s granddaughter, hide from both the Yakuza and an endless army of ninjas (and really, don’t ninja armies always seem endless?) in a love hotel. Too often, though, he cannot stop things from dipping into cliché; when Logan tosses corrupt minister of justice Noburo Mori (Brian Tee) from a high-rise balcony during an interrogation, pink-haired telepath Yukio (Rila Fukushima) asks him how he knew Mori would land in a pool below. “I didn’t,” Logan growls with a delivery that would make Humphrey Bogart roll his eyes. Worse, he appears unsure of the type of movie he wants to make, shifting emphasis from superhero comic to existential thriller without offering much of interest either way. Svetlana Khodchenkova’s supervillain Viper, flitting between intriguing and campy, personifies such stylistic schizophrenia; her femme fatale introduction to Logan at the elderly Yashida’s deathbed (she poses as Yashida’s oncologist) fits uneasily with the tight-fitting green outfit at the movie’s climax.
Though the screenwriters adapt The Wolverine from a good graphic novel by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, too much of it feels stitched together from other sources. They possess compelling material: the dying Yashida calls Logan to Japan so that he may say goodbye, and offers him a chance at regaining his own mortality. During Yashida’s funeral, which is interrupted as members of the Yakuza attempt to kill Mariko, Logan discovers that Yashida somehow must have granted this gift, for his wounds do not heal immediately after the attack. He assigns himself as Mariko’s protector, despite learning that Yashida considered him a Ronin. It’s intriguing material, and its themes of mortality and doom should offer territory most summer blockbusters never bother exploring. A shame that Bomback, Frank, and McQuarrie lose their nerve and resort to more disposable thriller elements, from mob bosses and petty personal scores to an almost laughably predictable climax. The overcast vistas of Tokyo and the snowy mountains of the Japanese mainland should evoke deep, exotic foreboding—Albert Camus crossed with Lafcadio Hearn—but its bland execution make it more reminiscent of Takeshi Kitano’s Brother (or, to be much less charitable, Ridley Scott’s vapid Black Rain). When Logan battles an army of ninjas outside of Yashida’s research facility, they behave like as if Mendel bred Tiger Tanaka’s army in You Only Live Twice with the Keystone cops.
This is Jackson’s sixth turn as the title character, including his cameo in X-Men: First Class. More haggard and glum than in previous outings, he nonetheless displays an ease with Logan not seen since X2: X-Men United. Mangold sees fit to put him against a generally strong cast, but seldom allows them to develop more than two dimensions. Many suffer the fate of Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays Mariko’s father: underwritten and overacted, as if they need to telegraph their character’s intentions. Only Rila Fukushima as Yukio demonstrates anything resembling comfort with her role.
The real problem with The Wolverine lies less with its execution, however, than with its place among superhero movies. Given the lackluster blockbusters that have flashed across movie screens with as much staying power, The Wolverine manages to stand out as an efficient and enjoyable if ultimately derivative and forgettable thriller. Had it been released during the cinematic genre’s golden age, its place might have been far more exalted. With greater ambitions, it might have survived. And perhaps it will burn as brightly in some memories as the bomb dropped during its opening. Like the buildings destroyed in the blast, however, it is destined to be barely a memory.