17 August 2013

Review: The Wolverine


Wolverine has fallen on some hard times with his last two endeavors in cineplexes. While X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were both financial successes, but left the most famous X-man feeling stagnant. Expectations were raised temporarily when it was announced that Darren Aronofsky would be directing the next feature, based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's acclaimed graphic novel that sets Logan in Japan.

Aronofsky ultimately dropped out, but James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma and Walk the Line) stepped in. With that, the tide turned on the sequel and audiences were low on The Wolverine. So when James Mangold put something together that looked and felt like a character study, it was a very pleasant surprise in a season (with exception to a few indies) that has thrown out more sequels and franchise add-ons than it knows what to do with.

The Wolverine picks up some time after the events of The Last Stand, and Logan (Hugh Jackman), racked with guilt after having to kill Jean Grey, is in the midst of a self-imposed seclusion in the Canadian wilderness. Doctoring himself with liquor and classical music to deal with the grief, Logan is content to live out his days in the cold comfort of abyss, vowing to never hurt anyone again

That vow is pushed dangerously close to the edge when a local hunter poisons a grizzly bear, resulting in the death of several campers. The only thing that stops him is a mysterious woman who arrives in town and beckons him to Japan at the request of a Japanese prison guard Logan rescued from the Nagasaki atom bomb explosion years ago.

Since World War II that guard has amassed a fortune large enough to become the most powerful man in Japan, and now Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) is dying. As a gift to Logan for saving him, he would like to offer him something no one else can: mortality. This gift does not come entirely out of gratitude, Yashida has been developing a system that will allow him to take Logan’s healing factor for himself.

Logan is hesitant to pass along that curse to anyone so he refuses Yashida's offer flatly.

Not long after the conversation Yashida's cancer finally takes his life. The Yashida clan is home to a great deal of strife, his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), is next in line to the throne much to the chagrin of her father, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada). Logan attends the funeral as a last gesture, but finds himself needed when the Yakuza kidnap Mariko. Injured during the attack, Logan finds that he is not healing as quickly as he used to.

Trying to protect Mariko and left vulnerable for the first time in his life, Logan is at his most dangerous.

The Wolverine is bolstered by a newly enthused Hugh Jackman reinvigorated with his character after a couple of subpar X-Men features. Jackman is always a magnetic presence, but Mangold has a knack for drawing superb performances from his leads (as exampled by Witherspoon and Phoenix in Walk the Line and Angelina Jolie in Girl, Interrupted) and he does it again here.

Paired along with Jackman is talented newcomer Rila Fukushima as Yukio and the much less interesting Mariko (she mostly serves as a plot device throughout most of the film, giving Logan cause to place himself in danger and also entangle himself in a romantic subplot that could have been left on the cutting room floor).

Why Marvel waited as long as they did to cover this storyline is beyond me. Placing Logan in Japan works in a sense because Wolverine has always fit into samurai culture. This is a culture that allows Logan to explore his personal definition, something he never found in the X-Men. He is the ronin wandering through life without a driving purpose. The Wolverine is at its best when it finds the divide in Logan, the divide between wild animal and the wounded psyche looking for solace.

Oh, if only things stayed that way, but The Wolverine has the misfortune of having a dog of an ending. For all the wonderful scenery and character exploration that we were treated to earlier, the film's third act retreats into a summer template rock 'em, sock 'em conclusion. Throw in a completely unnecessary villain (The Viper is about as bad as Poison Ivy in Batman and Robin. Yes, that bad.) and a large robot and the humanity of The Wolverine is gone.

That the ending doesn't completely botch all the goodwill the film had going for it is a testament to how well it succeeded as a character-based drama earlier on. I hope that this hot streak continues into Days of Future Past.

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Stay after the credits for a hell of a teaser sequence!