Saturday, July 27, 2013

"The Wolverine" (2013)

Starring Hugh Jackman, Tao Okimato and Rila Fukushima
Written by Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank
Directed by James Mangold
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language, brief male nudity
Running Time: 126 Minutes

Logan (Hugh Jackman) is a broken man in the wake of events in "X-Men: The Last Stand." Forced to kill the woman he loved, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Logan retreats from his friends and his life into the Canadian wilderness. He lives alone in the woods, with only the clothes on his back, the booze in his bottle and a battery-operated radio. He has nightmares every night, of his lost love begging him to join her in the afterlife, of his adamantium claws stabbing through her gut.

One evening, Logan is approached by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a young Japanese woman sent to find him by Shingen Yashida (Hiroyuki Sanada), owner of the largest and most powerful corporation in Asia. Yukio, with some convincing, brings Logan to Tokyo, where he finds Shingen dying of old age. In 1945, Logan saved Shingen from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, and Shingen, on his death bed, wishes to repay Logan that kindness. He offers to take Logan's incredible healing abilities from him, leaving him a mortal, ordinary man.

But Logan refuses, and the next day attends Shingen's funeral. But he's not the only unwanted guest: Yakuza thugs attack the funeral, attempting to kidnap Shingen's granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okimato). Logan intervenes to rescue her, but is wounded in the process. He quickly discovers that his healing powers have been stolen from him, but manages to get Mariko to safety anyway. Weakened, Logan takes Mariko on the run from the Yakuza.

But the Japanese mob aren't the only ones trying to find Logan and Mariko. To protect this woman, Logan realizes he's going to have to become something he promised himself he isn't anymore, that he would never become again. The animal within. The Wolverine.

I approached "The Wolverine" with a great amount of trepidation. "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "X-Men: Origins - Wolverine" are not good films. Revisiting "The Last Stand" recently, I found it to be a poorly scripted film full of good performances and action, but hollow and aggravatingly plotted. It squanders all the potential of its immediate predecessor, "X2: X-Men United."

"X-Men: Origins - Wolverine" is even worse - a horridly scripted junk blockbuster loaded with awful special effects that couldn't even stage one interesting action sequence.

So this new "Wolverine" movie wasn't exactly something I was itching to check out, even having liked the superior "X-Men: First Class" film.

Well, worry not - "The Wolverine" far outclasses "The Last Stand" and "Origins." It's not perfect; it is a bit too long, a bit too slow in the middle, but ultimately much more satisfying than those other two flicks.

"The Wolverine" is technically a sequel to "The Last Stand," though it only references that film in vague ways. The only acknowledgement of "The Last Stand," or even any of the other X-Men films at all comes from the appearances of Famke Janssen as Jean Grey in Logan's dreams and nightmares, and in the film's awesome post-credits scene. Otherwise, this film stands almost entirely on its own.

Sort of like "Unforgiven" with Wolverine, the movie finds Logan drawn unwillingly back into a life of violence and heroism, when all he wanted to do was retreat and wallow in his loss. Jackman, as always, glows in the role, owning the screen in every scene. There's a reason this guy is a star, and playing Wolverine is one of them. People can complain all they want that he's too tall (easily one of the most idiotic reasons to claim Jackman is at all miscast) but Jackman owns this role, giving just the right mix of gruff loneliness, genuine sense of honor and caring, and humor.

The rest of the cast, almost entirely Japanese, all do good work as well. Tao Okimato is vulnerable as Mariko, though it's hinted at that she can fight. She gets a few good hits, but is ultimately just a damsel in distress for Logan. The real gem here is Rila Fukushima as Yukio, who gets a lot of great lines and fight sequences. She's an incredibly fun character, haunted by her mutant gift, but also a capable warrior and an emotional young woman.

The villains are somewhat underdeveloped. Most of the effort here is spent on Logan himself and the two women. Mariko's father and fiance have little to do other than act like thugs; it's obvious that they're bad guys from the get go, with little subtlety in either the script or their performances. It's nothing bad, but it seems at odds with the rest of the film that's trying so hard to have real depth and emotion to it. Svetlana Khodchenkova wavers between being threatening and laughably bad as Viper, a mutant who seems to be part snake. Sometimes she works, and sometimes she's just awful.

Additionally, the script stumbles when it draws Mariko and Logan together romantically; the two characters function better when it's just a target and a protector. Once they start getting kissy, it feels forced and also underdeveloped. Additionally, even after Logan and Mariko have their night together, Logan continues to insist to Jean in his mind that he still loves hear, which is only one of the concepts that ultimately muddles the third act.

There are some good surprises in "The Wolverine." The action sequences are cool; even a train-top fight sequence that looked laughable in the trailers actually plays pretty well on the big screen. Yukio's big fight sequence is a great martial arts showcase. If I have one complaint, it's that Logan's big fight with a clan of ninjas is entirely too short. The final battle, which I won't spoil, feels like thought was put into it in how to make it interesting after watching five other movies where Wolverine just hacks away at his enemies with unbreakable claws.

While "The Wolverine" stumbles a bit, it's still way better than "The Last Stand" and "Origins." If this had been the first solo Wolverine movie, I might have been a bit harsher on it, but since the bar had been set so low, it's wonderful to have been surprised by this film. Despite its problems, it's an enjoyable return to the X-Men cinematic universe...

...and be sure to stay through the credits for a teaser to the next "X-Men" film, a scene that has crowd-pleaser written all over it.