Review: ‘The Wolverine’ exposes Jackman’s darker side, but feels declawed

The Wolverine

In September 2011, Hugh Jackman, one of the highest paid actors in the world, appeared on WWE Raw and punched the then champ in the face. Sure, he was there to promote his robot boxing movie Real Steel, but the guy is a genuine A-lister. Very few big name stars would embrace the sweaty, testosterone-filled soap opera world of professional wrestling just to promote a film. This was also just months after he appeared on stage at the Tony Awards and performed a song and dance number with Neil Patrick Harris. Two very dissimilar audiences, and yet they both loved him. He’s a likable guy, and that has probably saved both the character of Logan/Wolverine, as well as Fox’s X-Men film franchise (from a reboot, at least). That likability serves him well once again in The Wolverine, but thankfully the movie around him is much stronger than before.

It’s like watching Dirty Harry on network TV, after being so heavily edited that it lacks the punch it could otherwise have.

Jackman’s charisma (and genuine acting ability) have helped keep the character alive following two really awful films, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: The Last Stand. He remains the center of Fox’s X-Men universe from both a marketing and a narrative standpoint, and it was about damn time they let him truly free in his own film. Now if only the studio would get out of the way.

In 1982 Chris Claremont and Frank Miller released “Wolverine,” a four-issue mini-series that changed the character from a brawler with berserker rages into a ronin, a master-less samurai. Claremont and Miller made him a killer and helped to mature the superhero genre in the process. The Wolverine attempts to stick to that theme, but downplays the violence, limiting its potential in the process.

This marks Jackman’s sixth appearance as Wolverine (including a cameo in First Class), and he’s currently filming a seventh with the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past. He knows Wolverine in a way few movie actors get the opportunity to know the characters they play. When the story begins, Logan is still reeling from the death of Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand. When the dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) wishes to repay a decades-old debt to Logan from World War II, the wild Yukio (Rila Fukushima) tracks him down in the Yukon and coaxes him to come to Japan. 

The Wolverine
Logan heads to Japan in a loose retelling of the Chris Claremont and Frank Miller 1982 mini-series, “Wolverine.”

Jackman does a lot without even opening his mouth. His scowls and moments of reflection are worth more than an exposition-heavy chunk of dialogue. This is a different Wolverine than in previous films – heavier with the guilt of his actions, tortured by his past experiences, but still the same character. 

The supporting cast is also strong, including Yoshida’s granddaughter and heir Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who doubles as Logan’s love interest. Her pursuit by the yakuza provides the spark for Logan to accept his role as a soldier, even as a mysterious force begins to curtail his healing factor and forces him to embrace his mortality.

This is easily the best film starring Wolverine since X2.

Director James Mangold’s take on Logan is (slightly) less action hero and more tortured warrior, and the character feels more complete for it. Mangold also captures the duality of Japanese culture, contrasting the crowded, technologically sophisticated city of Tokyo with with more rural, historical locales. The burgeoning love story between Logan and Mariko  plays up those cultural differences as well, but it also causes some of the film’s bigger pacing issues.

The romance works on its own, but it eats up some of the time that should be spent developing the villains, especially Svetlana’s Khodchenkova’s Viper and Will Yun Lee’s Harada (both of whom are very liberally adapted from the comics). There is an intriguing relationship between the two that is never fully explored, and that robs some of the weight from the finale. Speaking of the ending, there’s also an incident that will have lasting consequences on future films and definitely be divisive among fans – a more satisfying final showdown could have helped this. The biggest issue, though, is the PG-13-rating.

The film has an old-school sensibility to it that justifies the use of violence. The theme is like a hardcore, bloody thriller from the 70s or 80s. Unfortunately, it’s shot through a family-friendly lens – a decision the studio probably put in place rather than Mangold, who has already promised fans an unrated cut. The Wolverine should be an R-rated film, more in line with a Tarantino movie than the previous X-Men flicks. Logan slashes and hacks his way across Japan leaving bits of ninja and yakuza everywhere, but you hardly see any blood and rarely even a body. It’s like watching Dirty Harry on network TV, after being so heavily edited that it lacks the punch it could otherwise have. It’s consequence-free slaughter that betrays the point and lacks any meaning.

There is a brutal, and possibly brilliant movie buried in The Wolverine, but it’s hampered by the safer version we get. Putting that aside, this is easily the best film starring Wolverine since X2. Make sure to the stay through the first set of credits for an extra scene too.

Conclusion

Jackman knows this role exceedingly well, and he delivers his best performance as the gruff X-Man to date in The Wolverine. There’s a good film here, but it also feels like it’s playing it too safe. It’s somewhat akin to band releasing an album with profanity, then another “clean” version: it loses something in the washing.

Enough of the good shines though, however, and The Wolverine is a strong, character-first story for one of the most popular properties in comics. It’s also a great bridge to the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, and breathes life back into Fox’s X-Men franchise.

 

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