We’re in the Land of the Rising Sun ... and the claws are out!
It’s 1945 and Nagasaki has just gone up in an atomic fireball. A muscle-bound, tufty-barnetted POW shields his friendly Japanese captor from the blast and then disappears into the mutant-mists of derring-do. The Japanese officer, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) knows his saviour’s secret and, after rising to the position of powerful corporate strength after the war, he seeks Wolverine out with the deathbed offer of transferring the X-Man’s apparently unwanted healing powers into his own withered and frail old body.
Hmmm ... he’s not going to fall for that. Is he?
Based pretty loosely on Chris Claremont’s fan-favourite comic arc, The Wolverine wisely opts to ignore the dodgy cop-out of the character’s previous Origins outing, and takes up the hirsute mutant’s odyssey as he struggles to find some meaning to a seemingly eternal life in the wake of the events of Last Stand. Riddled with guilt over his world-saving, mercy-killing of Jean Grey, he has gone back to the wild and mopes about the misty mountains like a hobo, haunted by visions of the woman he loved. When a Grizzly bear is poisoned by heartless redneck hunters and left to die a slow, agonised death, Logan sees red and shambles after them to exact his own brand of wilderness revenge. But he is stopped from going too far by a mysterious Japanese girl, Yukio (the alien-faced Rila Fukushima), who has been tracking him. She reveals that she has been tasked with bringing him back to the exotic Far East to meet his old acquaintance ... who now has that rather dubious proposition for him. And, reluctantly, Logan tags along.
Twisted family honour, formidable crime lords and Yakuza clans soon encircle Wolverine in a bloody broth of threat and death. Meeting the beautiful Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Yashida’s granddaughter, proves fateful, and after saving her from a swarm of assassins at her grandfather’s inevitable funeral, Logan is forced to go on the run with her. He knows that when it comes to trust in a situation like this ... it is best to trust no-one. There is clearly much more at stake than who will benefit from the reading of a simple will and, suffering from a slowed-down healing ability, courtesy of Eastern European henchwoman and poison-queen, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the now vulnerable mutant has to claw his way across a country he does not understand in a desperate attempt to uncover the real villain pulling all the strings ... and save the girl.
The claws are gonna get bloody on this one.
With each new film featuring the perma-riled, horn-haired Canadian X-Man, we are promised that we will see him finally cut loose and deliver a full-on berserker rage. Barring his defence of Xavier’s School for the Gifted in X2 and a brief tussle in the woods in Last Stand, the filmmakers really haven’t made good on their word. Until now, that is. He starts the story brooding and angry, and he pretty much remains at that level throughout, a few great Eastwood-esque comic lines aside. The result is a more mature take than we have become accustomed to, and a more satisfying one that is unafraid to weave its twists and turns slowly and with a firm degree of cold-hearted treachery. The narrative doesn’t do Japanese family respect any favours, that’s for sure.
Intending to give the much-loved antihero proper room to swing his claws by allowing him to go through the adventure-odyssey that most fans regard as his defining story – the Japanese Saga created in 1982 by Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller – Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine learns about life, love, loyalty, the ways of the samurai and the sushi. He also digs deeper into the tortured psyche of a man (mutant) who is virtually indestructible and ceases to find any fulfilment or happiness in such a condition. Reunited with director James Mangold, who helmed his romantic comedy Kate & Leopold back when the first X-Men movie was meeting somewhat unexpected acclaim, Jackman revels in the brawny angst of a character he has brought to cinematic life over the course, at present, six films (with number seven not far off) – a longer big screen tenure than any other superhero actor.
After the turgid, slapdash and unsatisfying soup of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the large ensemble smackdowns of the rest of the franchise, The Wolverine comes as a refreshing change in terms of focus, style and mood. It is unmistakably Jackman’s show, but the setting is magnificent and presents us with a view of Japan that isn’t the now clichéd image of dazzling, punky neon. The metaphor that Wolverine, spiritually adrift and leaderless, is like a wandering samurai, a ronin, is obviously touched-upon, but those thinking that they are going to witness Logan’s tutelage in the Eastern warrior arts are going to be disappointed. He is the perennial outsider, and I think it is better that it stays this way. His own personal angst and inner-darkness are the inexhaustible fuel that ignites his furious stopover in Japan, not the love for the culture that he has in the comics. The emotionally torn hero in search of his own identity, and desperate for a reason to go on is stock formula, of course. But Jackman has also been able to convey this darkness with surprising sincerity. Wolverine is a lover and a fighter and although the screenplay, initially from Chris McQuarrie but extensively reworked by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, consistently fudges any tangible depth to his torment, Jackman nails the world-weariness and the grief that are the inevitable bedfellows of those two thankless pursuits.
Mangold cites The Outlaw Josey Wales as his touchstone on the character’s journey, but he really only buckles-up alongside such a reluctant odyssey in the broadest of brush-strokes. Our warrior finds purpose and value through aiding others just like Wales, yes, but he doesn’t create a surrogate family of disparate souls and persecuted wastrels in the process, which is one of the main narrative thrusts of Eastwood’s classic Western. Wales is a gatherer, a shepherd. A perverse Messiah. Wolverine is hardly the guy you want as a shepherd. Likewise, you can see the influence of Polanski’s Chinatown, another confirmed thematic lynchpin, but this conceit is still very superficial. As for the oriental cinema he has drawn from ... well, even the likes of Ozu, Wong Kar-Wai or Kurosawa can only be taken at face-value. Whatever his grandiose aspirations for the film, it remains shallow in terms of ethnic, cultural and psychological integrity, all too often falling back on the natural and guaranteed gravitas of the leading man. I’m not complaining about any of this, but it just seems like so much set-dressing to have established these vital corners for his story, yet then just plough through a rudimentary, though hugely enjoyable by-the-numbers tale of a fish-out-of-water regaining his spiritual direction in a conflict by proxy ... and killing lots of people.
The biggest influence, by far, is James Bond. This is just like a rogue mission for 007. The locations, the women, the semblance of emotional and convenient attachment, the gate-crashing entry into an already volatile situation between warring factions, the presence of an alluring femme fatale, and everything culminating in spectacular crash, bang, wallop. And, like Skyfall, which I think Ross Emery’s exquisite cinematography actually beats, it attempts to deconstruct a well-known hero and place him at his lowest ebb. To this end, the film sheds the kinetic, bombast-every-five-minutes that normally demarcates the lavish, big budget multiplex feeder, and regularly drops down a gear or two in an attempt to expose and connect crises of the heart and soul. This, if anything, is its most admirable intention. And these lulls add a degree of pleasing contemplation to the mood. Hell, we even see him having a shave! You know, that’s not going to take long is it?
Even though the film seems slower, there is no shortage of action.
With hordes of Yakuza assassins and ninjas to wade through, and the gleaming adamantium behemoth of the Silver Samurai waiting in the wings for pulverising finale, Mangold and Jackman have a whole heap of mayhem to orchestrate. And, I have to say, they supply the best action that the entire X canon has to offer. Sure, this is all of the claws-out, crash ‘n’ bash brawling variety, with a blessed absence of lightning-bolts or telekinetic tomfoolery – but this is why we’re here. We want to see the Wolverine in full berserker-rage. We want to see him slicing ‘n’ dicing his way through pure bad-boy fodder with that super-snarly attitude emblazoning the sort of hyper rage that his cinematic outings have only hinted at, thus far. So when I say that the sight of Logan simply stalking towards his next quarry, even when he, himself, is injured and bleeding out, trounces all the growling combat that we have seen previously, you know that this one isn’t pulling any punches. This is possibly the hardest 12A movie that I’ve seen. The bodycount is huge, and the interpersonal aggression is clearly depicted with grunting, gasping violence. Whilst still perfectly and legitimately comic-book in style and flourish, and people who have obviously just been eviscerated by those shiny claws don’t really shed much blood, the impacts here feel nastier and are definitely more cruelly dealt. Logan is more hard-line and ruthless than ever. His approach to interrogating a captive can be either fun, or downright vicious – although both options will ultimately hurt them just as much. This is a blistering step in the right direction, revealing a sinister, far less forgiving force of nature. I’m reminded of the merciless approach of Lee Marvin in Point Blank, orEastwood inDirty Harry.
A great moment comes when he returns to a badly wounded Yakuza thug lying on the deck. We don’t see the claw, but we hear the snickt! and a guttural belch of pain. Jackman is always immensely charismatic, and it is testament to his acting ability that such instances of wickedness actually work as well as they do. The comic book Logan has slain more people than the Plague and he is such a surly brute that you really wouldn’t go anywhere near him even when he’s in a good mood. Jackman skilfully blunts that sadistic edge yet here, in The Wolverine, he brings a bestial rage to bear with more conviction than ever before.
The battle atop the bullet-train does feel slightly shoehorned-in to add a dynamic new spin to the skirmishing, but it’s a terrific set-piece, just the same. Whiplash speed and high-velocity duelling. It’s a furious combination of Bond and comic-book. A chase through the crowded streets of Tokyo is thrillingly told from a variety of perspectives – the hunted, the hunters and the Hawkeye-like guardian, Harada (Will Yun Lee), scampering across the rooftops. The much-anticipated sight of adamantium claws versus samurai steel results in some deliciously clangourous encounters, too. The image of him quilled with roped arrows and stalled to a grinding halt in the snow by a veritable army is a standout vision of sacrificial heroic iconography. It is also worth mentioning that Wolverine’s infected plight mimics that of the fallen bear at the start, adding a fine sense of animal symmetry to his surging return to form.
And what would a film such as this be without a stealthy mass-assault by silent ninjas? The sequence when these guys lay siege to a compound is full of grim takedowns, swift garrottings and immaculately choreographed body-drops.
And speaking of choreography, Jackman’s dancing skills stand him in good stead as he whirls, leaps and roars through the opposition. The fighting skills that have seemed all rather fuzzy and indistinct before, admittedly hampered by snap-cuts and an eye on the younger audience, now have more room in which to manifest and we can study his moves more efficiently. His physique is more honed and toned this time around, the bulk pared-down, via a new regime of intense workouts and daily fasting, to reveal steel-cord veins and popping sinew. Watching him flinging opponents off into the distance is a real tonic. It is also very pleasing and somewhat unique to see the damsel-in-distress actually able to do some serious damage to her attackers instead of just squealing and tripping over.
Thankfully steering clear of the multiple-mutie concept, Mangold keeps things firmly anchored on Logan. Some people have criticised toxin-bitch Viper for being a poorly conceived, lamely acted bolt-on, and whilst I agree that Khodchenkova’s performance is on the bland side, and the character is a sure-fire riff on Batman’s Poison Ivy, even down to the figure-hugging green garb, she still makes for an agreeably nasty troublemaker. That beauty spot on the side of her mouth was getting on my nerves though. I’m real glad I didn’t see that in 3D.
Although there had been rumours of dodgy CG, I found that, apart from a few frames during the duel with the Silver Samurai (in which the big shiny warrior’s downward swipes looked too cartoony), the visuals were excellent. The atomic firestorm at Nagasaki is dangerously delirious. The bullet-train fight, which looked dreadful in that supposedly “completed” pre-release footage, was absolutely fine. Hell, even the CG Grizzly that some people have bemoaned looked good to me.
When most superhero movies plunge the world and mankind into the sort of jeopardy that can only be thwarted by oddballs in wacky costumes, the very fact that this takes on a more personal tangent that plays more into the vogue of the hard-bitten thrillers of the seventies is downright commendable. Even with adamantium claws, mutant healing (or lack of), techno-toxins and a super-huge samurai monster on the rampage, The Wolverine welds its thematic conscience directly onto the bones of the main character and keeps things intimately wrought. Despite all the battles that happen, you can easily imagine that the general population would carry on, blissfully unaware of such rip-roaring frenzies. And whilst this means the stakes are considerably lower than in the usual summer action blockbuster, they are also more intense and potent. Sick of seeing buildings coming down and emotionless, samey-same mass destruction? Yep, me too. Well, The Wolverine makes a concerted effort to step backwards in this regard (if you discount the atomic flattening of Nagasaki for a moment, that is) and lets the characters do all the damage.
I am taking an in-depth look at Marco Beltrami’s score in its own review but, for now, it is definitely worth mentioning that his work on The Wolverine is typically brilliant. Having worked with Mangold on his remake of 3.10 To Yuma he understands the graceful movement between action and measured emotion, and the dynamics of powerful character moments. His action cues are Orientally-flavoured and blisteringly rhythmic. The apparent eschewing of a main theme is deceptive as, once again, he opts for a weirdly minimal, long-drawn-out motif that can reflect the Japanese setting or Logan’s own alpha-male lone-wolf drifter. Cleverly, it even can even both at the same time, with a combination of Far Eastern instruments and the uniquely Western sound of the harmonica. The score suits the film to a tee and, during one classic, potentially iconic moment of strength regaining, it surges with heroic defiance and nobility.
Something else I enjoyed about the film is that unmistakable Bondian adventure vibe I mentioned earlier. The exotic locale and the culture-shock is all very You Only Live Twice. There is the romantic hero angle, and the use of a femme fatale – although it should be noted that Wolverine has tended to find himself at the mercy of dominant women all throughout his live-action tenure – and his embroiling in the warfare of opposing factions is familiar to many 007 missions. But the biggest clincher comes when Logan actually re-appropriates the moment in Diamonds Are Forever when the unlucky Plenty O’ Toole gets the old heave-ho from a high balcony and winds-up in the pool far below. Here, it is Logan who performs the deed and utters the classic line, “I didn’t know there was a pool there.”
It also follows the template for early 007’s habitual infiltration and wrecking of a secret villainous base in a big, explosive climax.
There are inevitably some downsides.
The plot can seem a bit too convoluted and crowded for what is, basically, a very simple tale of jealously, twisted allegiance and heroic redemption. Whilst Jackman never fails to impress, there is little such impression made by the supporting cast, barring Fukushima, who is very charismatic and certainly delivers the goods in the combat stakes. The memories/dreams of Jean Grey become annoyingly tedious. Not only is Famke Janssen just plain awful (God, I cannot get her pitiful ragdoll performance in the pathetic Taken 2 out of my head), but these spiritual snippets of guilt and longing remind me of very similarly shot and infinitely more powerful scenes in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (hmmm ... there’s a connection there, somewhere). Okamoto may be pretty, but she really doesn’t come across as somebody that would make the Wolverine’s nose twitch, let alone his heart skip a beat, and there is precious little chemistry between her and Jackman. Arguably, you could claim that Wolverine is simply using her as a pawn to regain his mutant mojo, and I think this is quite a valid point, given the boring preponderance he has with the ghost of Jean. (“DROP THE BITCH, LOGAN, AND MOVE ON” – the script and the audience seem to be yelling at him.) And, is it just me, or does Wolverine always seem to be falling unconscious, or just coming around from that state? Honestly, this film must hold some kind of record for its lead succumbing to slumber, whether naturally or baddie-induced. A physical actor, Jackman may be, but we see a lot of downtime for him on camera, as well. The script is also frequently quite shoddy, not as exposition-heavy as some critics have sniped, but full of crass generic staleness. Even a final parting line from Logan has to be taken with a shovel-full of salt because it is so on-the-nose and groan-worthy.
I’m also kind of bemused at just how the Japanese could actually capture and imprison Wolverine during World War 2 in the first place! Like that scene in Origins when their own men execute him and his half-brother, Victor, in Vietnam in futility and then they simply allow themselves to be flung into a cell. Are we to take it that they are merely fed up with constant fighting and continual self-repair and just fancy some rest? Getting captured or knocked-out by those with unique powers of their own, or with some kind of mutant-take-down tactics is all well and good ... but it is doubtful that “normals” could achieve such deeds. Thus, little things like this strike a bum-note with me and they can’t help but niggle.
There is also the knowledge that there is a larger film out there than what we see here, theatrically. James Mangold has already spoken of a longer, more brutal version that should see the light of day on Blu-ray. Whilst it is clear that Wolverine’s battle with the Ninjas on motorbikes, who ride down off the roofs at him in a ghost-town set-piece, needs to be reinstated, I wouldn’t be surprised if more material was afforded Logan’s romance with the Japanese culture, itself. Mangold was infatuated with samurai films and their etiquette and formality and has stated how much he wanted to lace his own film with such nobility, stature and grace. Well, the theatrical cut has little of that. Although, truth be told, asides from the motorbike attack, this cut flows very well indeed and bears little evidence of having been broken down.
In closing, I like the X-Men films, but probably only because of the presence of Wolverine. The sheer number of mutants and their tiresome abilities simply bores me, I’m sorry to say. Which is probably why I love this stand-apart story so much, and can be more forgiving towards it and its shortcomings than others. Once the rest of the X-mob get involved, no matter how essential they may be to the bigger picture, I lose interest until Weapon X is back onscreen. Logan is the defining character of this universe and the most complex.
Jackman makes the Canuck berserker altogether more vulnerable and “human”, shedding the more animalistic traits that the best of the Wolverine stories endorse, but playing up the haunted warrior with a compelling blend of ferocity, sarcasm and charming credibility. There’s no getting away from the fact that he is softer and more likeable in the movies than his panel-drawn ancestor, but with this story he goes further at stripping back his civilised veneer to expose the beast within. Quite how Darren Aronofsky’s take would have fared is now pure conjecture, but it strikes me that Wolverine’s dishevelled woodsman-look at the start of the story is like a nod to his collaboration with the director on the intensely personal pseudo-fantasy, The Fountain, in which he sported a similar look and the same heartbroken, fate-screwed despair.
As you will probably already know, you should stick around for the teasing Marvel addendum during the final credits. A surprisingly lengthy and intriguing set-up for Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, this is one of the best post-movie mini-episodes out there ... and, for those who were in any doubt, it clearly shows that Wolverine will be making much more than just a cameo appearance.
I loved The Wolverine. Less fancy mumbo-jumbo and ridiculous powers than the rest of the series, and a damn fine thriller that feels admirably old-school. Considering that this version is truncated and that an extended cut is reputedly on the way, I’m awarding this a 7.5 out of 10 in the hopes that it will improve with additional material.
Sayonara, Logan-san. For now.
VerdictFor my money, this theatrical cut of The Wolverine is impressively staged, nicely paced and highly entertaining. James Mangold maintains a cool mix of moody introspection – probably nowhere near as much as original helmer Darren Aronofsky would have done, though – and ferocious skirmishing. The plot isn’t any great shakes, and it does tend to complicate things a bit unnecessarily, but it is something of a new slant for a big superhero movie, with the events depicted being intensely personal and intimate and not at all Earth-threatening.
Jackman struggles to keep his top on, and with that physique, who can blame him? Fukushima looks like an alien grey, but more than holds her own as a devoted warrior-minx. Okamoto is a beautiful but decidedly blank canvas, and bloody Famke Janssen keeps butting-in even though she’s dead. And we also know that some good stuff has not made it into the theatrical cut. But, this is still a great action thriller that may go down a familiar road, but does so in an agreeably offbeat manner. I have seen it twice now – both times in 2D – and could happily go for the hat-trick.
Extremely hard-hitting for a 12A, very seventies in tone, and absolutely gorgeous to look at, The Wolverine is my own personal fave film of the year, so far. But then that wouldn’t have been difficult ... and I am somewhat biased, when all said and done.
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