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Josh Reviews The Wolverine

August 1st, 2013
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I think if I had never read Wolverine, the classic 1982 mini-series written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller & Joe Rubinstein, I would have had a lot more enjoyment from the new film The Wolverine.

I think The Wolverine is a very solid film, an excellent Wolverine solo adventure with some great character beats and some killer action sequences.  It’s a film that goes a long way towards righting the “present-day” X-Men film franchise that had so badly stumbled with X3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  The problem is that this film is purported to be an adaptation of the Claremont/Miller mini-series.  Ever since Hugh Jackman first impressed movie-goers with his portrayal of Logan in Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film, fans have clamored for an adaptation of the character-defining story in which Wolverine goes to Japan, finds love, fights lots of ninjas, and is forced to confront the basic duality of his nature and determine whether he is capable of being more than an animalistic killing machine.  It’s a classic story, probably still to this day the greatest Wolverine story.

And although The Wolverine is set in Japan and features characters named Mariko, Yukio, and Shingen, the similarities to the Claremont/Miller story end there.  That really bummed me out, because while The Wolverine tells a very interesting story, I didn’t find it nearly as interesting as the comic book story.  So I wonder why the filmmakers didn’t just tell that great story from the comic, rather than making up this whole new one?

Putting aside the comparisons, the story told in The Wolverine is a good one.  Despite quite a few years having passed since 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, The Wolverine is an unabashed sequel to that film, picking up an unspecified number of years later, with Logan still haunted by his killing of Jean Grey.  He has tried to swear off violence, but continually finds himself drawn into situations in which he sees wrongs that need to be righted, often at the pointy-ends of his adamantium claws.  Into his life enters Yukio, a young woman sent to track him down on behalf of the aged head of clan Yashida.  Logan saved his life decades ago, at the end of World War II, and Yashida wants to repay this debt by giving Logan a way to end his immortal life.

Hugh Jackman is still staggeringly impressive as Logan.  He brings tremendous physicality to the role (Mr. Jackman has a Shatner-esque ability to constantly find himself without a shirt) and also an ability to almost effortlessly display Logan’s innate nobility and romantic side.  That’s a central aspect of the character in the comics — he’s really quite a softy at heart — and Mr. Jackman nails that part of the character, while never losing the danger and ferocity that is also inherent in the character.

Mr. Jackman is surrounded by a strong ensemble of Japanese actors.  It took me a little while to warm up to Yukio (Rila Fukushima), as the character is a lot different from her presentation in the comics, but I really grew to enjoy her interpretation.  Yukio is a fierce little spitfire, dangerous with the sword but also open and friendly, both to Logan and to her adopted sister, Mariko.  Tao Okamoto is fantastic as Mariko.  It’s a thinly-written role (and, frankly, she’s a fairly thin character in the original comics, too), but I felt Ms. Okamoto brought a lot of life and depth to the character.  Mariko is all about honor and respectability — she is a very proper young woman — but Ms. Okamoto knows exactly when and how to show us her beating heart underneath.  The relationship between Mariko and Logan has to work for the movie to work, and I thought Ms. Okamoto really sold that aspect of the storyline.  I also really enjoyed Hiroyuki Sanada as Shingen, Mariko’s stern, domineering father.  He was easy to hate!

For the most part, The Wolverine is a very grounded film, and I loved that.  There are a lot of fights, but it’s mostly pretty street-level stuff.  Wolverine isn’t fighting super-villains, he’s fighting assassins with guns and swords.  (And ninjas!  We finally get to see Logan fight some ninjas!!  But why the heck is the movie afraid to refer to them as the Hand??  What’s with all this “Black Clan” nonsense??)  Director James Mangold does a great job with the action, keeping the action beats very easily understandable and never losing track of the geography of the fights.  The Wolverine is a very sharp-looking film.  I loved how well the Japanese landscapes and architecture were incorporated into the visual language of the movie.  Japan itself is an important character in the story, and I was pleased by how well that came across.

Probably my favorite aspect of the film was the use of Jean Grey.  The trailers spoiled Famke Janssen’s reprisal of her role, but I had expected a one-scene cameo.  I am happy to say there’s a lot more of Jean Grey in the film than I had expected, and I loved the way her character is used.  It’s very clever, and also powerful thematically in the way it makes literal the internal struggle Logan is going through throughout the film as he wrestles with the trauma of outliving everyone he has loved.

The film makes a few mis-steps.  There’s a horrendous scene mid-film in which Viper gives us a ton of exposition that was totally unnecessary and painful to watch.  (Surely everyone in the audience was aware that she was behind Logan’s weakened healing powers… even Logan had basically figured it out in the previous scene!)  Actually, the whole character of Viper was a mistake.  They did a great job bringing the look of the character from the comics to life.  But not only is the character totally unnecessary to the plot, not only are her powers totally unclear (why does her poison seem to melt people’s faces, only for them — Harada, Shingen — to immediately recover?  How does her ability to shed her skin enable her to recover from a seemingly mortal injury?), but the actress playing her is just terrible.

I also felt there were one too many double-crosses in the film.  There is a lot of betrayal and back-stabbing, and while I like a complex film I would have preferred to have had a clearer picture of the various characters’ motivations as the story was unfolding.  As the climax of the film was playing out (in which Wolverine battles the Silver Samurai) I think I would have been much more emotionally engaged at that point had I understood what the heck was going on and why the Samurai was fighting Wolverine in the first place.  (We don’t really get those answers until after the battle is done.)  And, oy, the Silver Samurai.  Not only did they totally change around this interesting character from the comics, but making the Samurai into, basically, the ED-209 from Robocop was a big mistake in my opinion.  The whole climax of The Wolverine was a bit of a mess, as this pretty-cool crime/ninja caper turns into a big super-hero/super-villain fight in a bad guy’s lair.

I was intrigued by the ending.  They make a pretty big physical change to Logan during that final fight that I was surprised and impressed they didn’t magically undo by the time the end credits rolled.  I am interested to see how that particular thread is picked up in next year’s X-Men film, Days of Future Past.  One of the things I think The Wolverine did most successfully was take the wandering X-Men series and point viewers in a clear narrative direction.  After the departure of Bryan Singer from the franchise following X2, the producers have seemed lost as to where to take the series.  Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand brought a quick and unfortunate end to many of the story-lines Mr. Singer had begun.  The look back at Wolverine’s origin in his first solo film was a bust.  With no apparent way forward (even though, to me, it seems like it should have been a no-brainer to just keep telling more X-Men stories, drawing from the comics’ wealth of history), they decided to go backwards and tell a prequel, X-Men: First Class.  That film turned out to be great (click here for my review), and so I assumed that for the next few years they would abandon the “present day” stories and make a few sequels set in that prequel world of the ’60s and ’70s.  But The Wolverine does a great job of moving forward the character’s story post-X-Men: The Last Stand, and when the movie ends I was excited by how they had positioned Logan to be ready for his next adventure.

(Be sure to stay seated through the credits.  Fans know that Hugh Jackman will reprise the character again in next year’s Days of Future Past film, which is a ballsy time-travel crossover between the “present day” cast from the original trilogy of X-Men films and the prequel era First Class characters.  I expected a little tease of that upcoming film, but I was delighted by how directly the mid-credits scene primed the pump for next summer’s continuation of the saga.  Fun stuff.)

In comparison to the classic Claremont/Miller story, The Wolverine is a let-down.  I am bummed that it looks like we won’t ever get to see a direct adaptation of that amazing story.  But taken on its own merits, I found The Wolverine to be a very solid, competently-made super-hero yarn.  This isn’t fate-of-the-world stuff — it’s a much smaller story, and I think the film is stronger for that.  Hugh Jackman continues to be perfection in the role, and this is a far stronger outing than the execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine was (click here for my original review).  For the first time since 2003’s X2 a decade ago, I am excited to see new adventures of the “present day” X-Men characters.

Come on now, Bryan Singer, don’t disappoint me next year!!

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