Whatever its faults, The Wolverine is its own movie, and that’s not something you often get to say about comic book films these days. Almost all of ‘em play out the events of their stories only in part – then there’s the bloat to set up the next film in the run. Patton Oswalt’s brilliant time ribbon between franchises aside, it’s refreshing to see our favorite cigar-chomping Canuck isolated in continuity. Only Famke Janson’s Jean Grey, a Banquo’s Ghost in a white camisole, represents for the Xavier Gifted Youngsters alumni. Otherwise, Logan goes to Japan. Ninjas and samurai and lots of snikt! happen. There’s a beauty in the simplicity of the thing.
The Wolverine works best when it considers the mythic stature of its subject. The film opens on the bombing of Nagasaki, because of course it does, during which Logan saves a Japanese officer, because of course he does. Some seventy years later, the old man – not thrilled about dying – sends for Logan, ostensibly to protect his granddaughter and heir, Mariko (Tao Okamoto); but probably to have a hot mutant scientist/green pleather enthusiast (Svetlana Khodchenkova) steal his healing powers. Just a guess.
To the film’s credit, Wolverine’s increased vulnerability only makes the fights with hoards of Yakuza and ninja assassins more interesting. Logan would never admit to being in pain; powering through bullet wounds physicalizes it, making the stakes higher without adding any mush or fuss. Gun-for-hire director James Mangold brings a fluid sensibility to the action, particularly in the film’s standout set-piece: this takes place on top of a bullet-train, recalls the F-Zero racing games, and features some breathtaking leaps that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Zhang Yimou’s wuxia epics. One mourns for what an auteur-director like Darren Aronofsky might’ve done with the material, but the fights satisfy and the plot suffices. The moment – and you’ll know it when you see it – in which Logan removes the malaise nipping at his heart is literalized inventively and plays so wonderfully you’ll forget how fucking implausible it is.
The other nice thing about this movie, as opposed to its predecessor, the best-forgotten X-Men Origins: Wolverine, is that it stays truer to its comics origins. The sequence with the Grizzly that follows the WWII prologue comes directly out of the famed Chris Claremont and Frank Miller run. The film largely respects their vision. In its best fights and in its refreshing interludes, the focus is solely on Logan as an unspeakably wounded ronin, so adrift he’s can’t grasp for meaning. Hugh Jackman plays Wolvie like a hero out of a Western – a weathered, almost haunted man of action, as iconic as he is isolated, who will always do what is right though he’ll never see any gain. And he’s just as compelling, and just as much fun to watch, as The Duke.
The giant adamantium self-heating katana cuts both ways, however, and it’s unfortunate that the rest of the cast are mere functions, not characters. Rila Fukushima’s Kamikaze girl-sidekick is game and pleasingly skillful, with a mutant power thrown in as an afterthought, but much like the supporting female in Pacific Rim, has precious little to add aside from swordplay. There’s hints that Mariko might have more steel to her, that there’s some strength and certainty Logan responds to in this redemptive woman, but it’s never fully spelled out. Her fiancé and ninja boyfriend (long story) are best thought of as boss fights. Elsewise, they’re clutter.
In fact, once Logan regains his sense of purpose – affirmed in a shoji-screen-slashing, beautifully choreographed duel with Hiroyuki Sanada (The Last Samurai, Lost, Revenge, pretty much anything where you need a stoic, badass swordsman) – the movie has kind of done its job. And then it remembers it’s a comic book movie and tries to go bigger, with actual mutant powers and a giant robot samurai. Which, you know, is fine. But it is a testament to Hugh Jackman’s complete command of the character and the film’s relatively meditative tone (with bullet-train fights, of course) that its third act feels unnecessary. The transition from actioner/character-piece to straight-up super hero brawler doesn’t quite come off; the rhythm of the film doesn’t flow quite as smoothly as its many shots of Japanese people pouring tea would have you to believe.
While X2 still holds the crown for Best-In-Franchise, The Wolverine is a satisfactory, self-contained little comic book movie. That’s an achievement in itself, but there are also several good action pieces, and (of course) an after-credits sequence to get you excited for Days of Future Past.
Take a Drink: every time Mariko says, “Logan!”
Take a Drink: whenever the Japanese goes untranslated.
Take a Drink: for each time Logan gets shot – with bullets, y’all. Including arrows, which also will send you to the hospital.
Do a Shot: for each A-list cameo in the after-credits scene.
Finish Your Drink: when Logan says “Bub.”