The Wolverine,
directed by James Mangold
(20th Century Fox, 2013)

Wolverine is so drama-heavy as a character -- heavier, perhaps, even than Batman -- that it's impossible not to make his story all about the Greek tragedy that is his existence. Highly successful franchises based on solo characters such as Captain America and Iron Man can find things to push to the drama foreground that aren't all twisted backstory, as with The Winter Soldier's irising of individual rights versus dictatorship, or Iron Man's role as genius inventor versus flawed leader. But Wolverine is sometimes all backstory, as befits a being who is over two centuries old. His past dictates his future to such an extent that nearly every dramatic eruption in his present day life is traced back to seeds planted a long time ago: great, very dramatic, future-controlling-backstory moments created simply because he let his heart decide the outcome.

Hence his present day dilemma. One moment of allowance -- helping a young Japanese soldier named Yashida to escape the burning death of an atomic bomb in 1945 Japan -- has now brought a world of grief to his doorstep in the present day.

Living somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is once more attempting to wing it alone, only to spend his free time slicing and dicing illegal poachers at a rather alarming rate. In the midst of an epic barroom brawl instigated by his confronting a bunch of drunken hunters who poisoned a bear on his territory (remember that thing about leading with his heart?), a beautiful young warrior, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a sort of anime character come to life, yanks Logan out of the fight and away from a dead-end existence filled with guilt-ridden nightmares of Jean Gray, taking him to Tokyo, to the bedside of the soldier he once saved. An elderly man now dying of cancer, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) offers to alleviate Logan's immortality by removing the adamantium steel that covers his skeleton, which he will then use for himself, saving his own life through becoming similarly immortal.

I would honestly have preferred that the plot stop there. While the movie is well acted, visualized and filmed, the story itself quickly becomes lost in nebulous sub-plots that don't really add anything to Logan's character or story. After refusing to curse anyone with his immortality, Logan is immediately caught up in some twisted family politics. Yashida's daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), is kidnapped by Yakuza, in retribution for her former boyfriend's dealings with the mobsters. On top of that, her current fiance is highly placed with the government and her father is the ultra-ambitious sort, which adds up to them having various shenanigans of their own going on.

Behind all this is a super-nemesis, the basic requirement of all superhero films. This baddie is named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), whose snakelike mutant powers revolve, of course, around the most interesting kind of chemistry experiments. On top of everything else there's a giant, silver samurai robot appearing late in the film. It's a bit much.

The attempts at ronin-style drama, though, are largely successful. Jackman does his usual outstanding job inhabiting the conflicted, complex character of Logan, whose 200 years are starting to show on him. The action sequences are well-choreographed and full of ninja, yakuza and speeding bullet trains. There's a good stab at understatement in a way that keeps the plot twists under wraps and makes for some gripping viewing. Jackman takes the Wolverine character seriously and it shows in the vulnerable, angsty side that's on full display in every frame he's in.

But the pieces, for whatever reason, don't come together into a very coherent whole. It does feel like a new cinematic take but it doesn't feel like a terribly invigorating one. The movie should be seen for Jackman's performance, as he switches back and forth between unstoppable killing machine and compassionate, samurai-with-a-soul, in the blink of an eye. This might not be the most memorable or definitive Wolverine film out there but it's a clear sign that the attempts are starting to head in the right direction.

review by
Mary Harvey

9 August 2014

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