August 25, 2013

THE WOLVERINE Reignites My X-Men Excitement

"A lot of people have tried to kill me and I'm still here."
Sometimes "pretty good" is good enough.

After X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it seemed a pretty safe bet that the modern day X-franchise was dead in the water.  That movie is terrible to the point of absurdity, turning into a cartoon when Logan boxes with a blubbery Kevin Durand and eventually culminating in the battle to end all battles, Wolverine vs a fire escape:


But even after that monstrosity, there was very little ill will leveled against star Hugh Jackman.  If anything, we all kind of felt sorry for him.  The guy clearly had big love for the character and was giving it 110% on screen, but after the disorganized mess of X-Men: The Last Stand and the unwatchable disaster of Origins, the movie-going public sort of accepted the fact that it was time to move on.  Matthew Vaughn made it easy with X-Men: First Class, rebooting some of our favorite characters in a fun, vintage time period and OH HEY LOOK Wolverine showed up for probably the best single scene of the movie!  Remember that guy?  That guy we all used to love?  Yeah, it's a shame they ran him into the ground like that.

But Jackman refused to go softly into that good night, determined to get one more shot at doing proper justice to the character that made his career.  So he set his sights on the single greatest storyline in the character's history (Logan as a ronin in Japan) and recruited a strong director that he was comfortable working with in James Mangold, whose 3:10 To Yuma is one of the strongest post-Unforgiven westerns to date.  The plan was to keep things intimate and focused - rather than try to tell the story of Logan's entire life, filled with familiar comic characters portrayed by folks like Ryan Reynolds and Will.I.Am, this would truly be The Wolverine Show, centered on a haunted warrior whose psyche is so damaged after being forced to kill Jean Grey that he's completely retreated from the rest of the world.

For the most part, Jackman and Mangold have succeeded, giving us what is easily the best iteration of the character to date.  When the film stays small, it works wonders - I could watch Logan on the run while fighting off dozens of yakuza all day, and every scene he has with Rila Fukushima as his spunky sidekick who can see people's future deaths is entertaining beyond reason.  At this point I don't have to tell you that Jackman owns the role of Logan completely and there's a reason we all keep showing up to see him play this character.  He's simply too good to ignore.  And Mangold stages most of the action with a strong, clean style hat actually lets us see people doing awesome stuff with bladed weapons.  There's even a ridiculous fight on top of a speeding bullet train that I sort of loved despite myself.  The script also contains a lot of simple but effective symmetry.  One character describes how a clan of black-clad ninjas once invaded his village, only to have such ninjas eventually lay siege to his home.  Similarly, Logan encounters a bear in the Canadian wilderness that's been taken down by a poison arrow, a fate that he'll share later on in the film.

But there's plenty of other stuff that doesn't work in The Wolverine.  Logan spends much of the movie partially incapacitated, having been robbed of his healing abilities to a certain degree.  I hate when superhero movies do those stories because we all know that he'll get his powers eventually, so we therefore spend most of the movie waiting for the loop to close.  It would be one thing if Logan had relinquished his powers willingly, which I actually thought was going to happen.  At least then you're exploring the mental state of the character; watching him regain his powers is fine, but rediscovering why he wants and/or needs powers is far more interesting.  Instead his abilities are stolen from him in the middle of the night, and even then it's only a partial loss.  That means that he no longer heals wounds instantly, but he can still take multiple bullets to the chest and walk away merely a bit winded.  Dumb.

Mariko, Logan's love interest, is kind of a non-presence in the film, existing only to get chased and captured by yakuza thugs.  And Viper, the blonde scientist who actually steals Logan's powers, seemingly has a wide variety of vague and unspecific abilities - she spits acid, she can shed her skin, and she's immune to all poisons.  It feels like they couldn't settle on any one mutation, so they gave her whatever ability was convenient for the scene they were writing.  It also doesn't help that Svetlana Khodchenkova is simply terrible on screen.  Will Yun Lee is in a tough spot as an assassin who loves Mariko and who seems to switch allegiance every twenty minutes, but he manages to mostly make it work.  But the person I felt most sorry for was Famke Janssen, who's given the completely thankless role of haunting Logan's dreams to make him feel guilty for killing her and to occasionally give him psychic visions.  (I think?  This part was very unclear.)  It's not Janssen's fault, but each time she appeared on screen I mentally checked out.  Jean Grey probably would have been more effective if she only showed up once or twice, instead of every time Logan falls asleep or gets knocked unconscious, which happens a lot.

The film's finale is a touch disappointing, abandoning all the smart, personal stuff in favor of a big fight with a giant CG Silver Samurai in the villain's secret mountain top hideout.  I actually got excited at first because it looked like Wolverine would have to fight his way through a clan of ninjas to get there and that's really the thing you most want to see most in a movie about Logan in Japan.  Wolverine vs. ninjas.  No brainer.  Sadly it doesn't really happen, as they just sort of capture him and drag him up to the villain's lair.  Credit where credit is due though, as there's actually a fairly shocking consequence of that final battle that inherently changes the character of Wolverine going forward.  I'm always impressed when a film manages to alter the status quo in a way that defies expectations, but then again this particular change will probably be ret-conned away in the upcoming Days Of Future Past.

Speaking of which, make sure you stick around through the credits, as there's a fantastic scene that sets the stage wonderfully for Bryan Singer's return to the franchise.  If nothing else, The Wolverine sent me out of the theater practically vibrating with excitement to see where Fox takes the X-Men next.  In a way, that's probably all that Fox is really hoping for.

Mission accomplished.

Title: The Wolverine
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Hiroyuki Sanada, Will Yun Lee, Hal Yamanouchi, Famke Janssen
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Showcase Revere

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