Review: The Wolverine

Spoilers

Trailer

Hugh Jackman returns as the titular "Wolverine" in the sixth X-Men movie.

Hugh Jackman returns as the titular “Wolverine” in the sixth X-Men movie.

The X-Men franchise is a funny one alright. Fully six movies now, with a seventh to come next year, which is rare enough for any franchise. But even rarer, is that they’ve managed to keep a consistent level of quality throughout most of their run, matched by a consistent level of box-office return. Even Origins: Wolverine, while being far from stellar, wasn’t the car crash so many made it out to be. The X-Men movies have also managed to evolve past their initial trilogy into something new and interesting in First Class, and seem to have envisioned an intriguing scenario for next year’s Days of Future Past.

Enter The Wolverine. Logan has always been one of the main draws when it comes to the X-Men – he’s the only character who has been in all of them after all – and here he has to not only be a part of his own story, but bridge a large gap between the end of The Last Stand and the beginning of Days of Future Past. With Origins: Wolverine not setting the world alight, the pressure is well and truly on for this franchise and their star man.

Logan (Hugh Jackman) – the titular “Wolverine”, with an adamantium skeleton and tremendous healing powers – is brought out of a self-imposed exile from humanity by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a Japanese representative of an old acquaintance, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi/Ken Yamamura). Yashida is nearing the end of a long and fruitful life, made possible by the intervention of Logan a very long time ago, and wants to offer Wolverine a gift: to remove his apparent immortality and let him have a death he is secretly yearning for. But before Logan can deal with that, he is dragged into a web of conspiracy and plot involving Yashida’s son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), ninja leader Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee) and the deadly poison mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova). Logan must try and save Mariko from the dark forces trying to use her for their own ends, while dealing with his regrets over the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and the sudden loss of his healing powers.

Before I even say anything about the plot or story, I have to talk about the setting. In my opinion, not enough use is made of Japan as a setting for western-created media. It’s a glorious place to flim a movie, a country with some of the sharpest contrasts on the planet, especially when compared to western culture. There is so much to see and to use in Japan, from the neon storm of Tokyo, to the mountain ranges, to the minutia of love hotels, shrines to ancestors and bullet trains. It’s almost a breath of fresh air to see a big-budget Hollywood film actually setting something there, and not only that, but making it the locale for the vast majority of the movie. Moreover, nearly the entire cast, barring three characters, are Japanese, which is also a great call, easing the audience into an environment that is as close to alien at times that you can get on Planet Earth, and still be relatable to a viewership made up primarily of westerners. Every part of the Japanese setting, from the locations to the family drama, drew me in, in a way that other superhero films set in some other American city have failed to.

That bit of unrepentant praise done with, I have to actually critique. The overall plot of The Wolverine, while being aided big time by the great setting, is still very basic, disappointingly so. It’s simply more of the same for the Logan character, just in a different, and enthralling, location.

If there is one sentence you could wrap around nearly all Wolverine plots, especially in this movie series, it is “reluctant hero, dragged into the story against his will”, and that’s exactly what happens here. As he was in X-Men, X-Men 2, Origins: Wolverine, and presumably as he will be in Days of Future Past, Logan just wants to be left alone until some agent drags him kicking and screaming to face the big threat, which he invariably ends up stabbing, before going back to his typical exile.

Throw in a love interest and you have yourself a Wolverine movie, though at least this one actually has a decent love interest as opposed to infuriatingly mopey Jean Grey stuff from the original trilogy. The love sub-plot is handled pretty well, if in an all-too typically rushed manner. At least some time is taken to establishing the attraction between Logan and Mariko, what Logan see’s in her worth fighting for, and how she is able to heal some of the inner pain that Logan is feeling. And rushed as it was, it was still far more bearable than three movies of Logan pining after someone else’s girlfriend.

But overall, writers just don’t seem capable of getting any more blood from this Wolverine stone without really changing or challenging the character, so they fall back to relied and true story methods and just alter the setting.

The setting and its greatness is a good enough thing to cover up the evident malaise, but only just. This is by the numbers affair that is fairly predictable from beginning to end, that will satisfy some but leave many wanting, wondering just why they have to sit through another Logan offering that changes little to do with the character.

That maybe gives the impression that I felt worse about this movie than I did. There are loads of very good sequences and moments. The opening, depicting the Nagasaki A-Bomb detonation and Logan’s role in it, was surprisingly exhilarating and tension filled, as this epic weapon engulfs a whole city and the locals can only look on and prepare themselves for the end. That whole sequence set up the films key relationship – Logan and Yashida – very well, showing Yashida as a Japanese soldier worth saving  – as he frees the prisoners and given them a chance to escape – and Logan as the same decent person he always has been at heart, enduring a great amount of pain to save a single life: a decision that has ramifications for decades to come.

Tao Okamoto is steller as Mariko, giving the film a very neccesary heart and a decent love interest for Logan.

Tao Okamoto is steller as Mariko, giving the film a very neccesary heart and a decent love interest for Logan.

Then, a sudden switch to Logan living as hermit and slowly being drawn back towards the human race, that was surprisingly poignant, and offered a great moment of “badass-ery” when Logan confronts the incompetent hunters, and a genuine moment of depth and subtlety when he comforts the dying bear.

That’s sort of damaged by a recurring sequence where Logan confronts the dead Jean Grey in a dream, which is cliché, eye-rolling in its course, and rather childish in its ending. This whole sub-plot is supposed to show Logan’s grief in a visual way, as if the production team doesn’t trust the audience to simply “get it”, and all it does is add unnecessarily to the running time. “Show, don’t tell” should come into play here: Logan living as a hermit on a mountain should be enough to show us that he’s damaged and hiding from something, and maybe he could have opened up later in his relationship with Mariko to provide background detail on Jean for anyone who hadn’t seen The Last Stand, without Famke Janssen actually being on hand to spell out for the audience in the most overdone matter possible.

From there it’s on to Japan, and a decently put together plot involving the internal disputes of the Yashida family. While the end result is nothing that spectacular, you can see that the writers are at least trying to come up with something of some complexity. There are a lot of dynamics in play surrounding the Mariko character and her relationships with her family members that brings a (short-lived) sense of mystery, from her stern father, the self-serving fiancée, the awkward adopted sister, the pining former lover and then the biggest mystery, her absent grandfather. It doesn’t really take that long to figure out which threads are more solid than others – the person I saw this with can confirm I had the main mystery figured out quite fast, and I daresay most people familiar with superhero or mystery movies would do before the end as well.

But it’s still worth watching because there is a genuine family drama/dispute plot layered in to the more typical superhero fare of The Wolverine, and while it might not be anything approaching Oscar quality, it’s still ok, and I can appreciate that. The idea that Logan actually takes a back seat in the movie bearing his name might take some getting used to, but while all the stuff featuring Wolverine is as predictable as it gets, the Yashida family plot at least offers the barest hints of suspense.

The Wolverine also manages to mix in a few elements without dragging down any of the main sub –plots. There is the Viper and her own little conspiracy to weaken Logan, the Ninja clan involvement and the corporate warfare element of the entire conspiracy. And while you’ll probably figure out who is behind everything long before that character meets their final end, at least enough plot threads are there to keep you entertained, if not guessing. I’ll give The Wolverine props for actually bringing a sense of finality to all of the aforementioned sub-plots as well, which is usually pretty rare in this genre.

I said before that this film was predictable and it really is. You’ll see the plot twists coming and marvel at the Chekov’s guns. When Logan admires the picture of a mountain structure in the Yashida household lobby, when the elder Yashida dies but you don’t see the body, when the father doesn’t seem too upset that his daughter is missing, when the camera focuses up on the internal medicine bug things before Logan loses his powers…you get my meaning. The Wolverine team foreshadows just a little too much, as if worried that, with the exotic setting and cast, they might lose the audience if they actually try and challenge their intellect for what is, nominally supposed to be an action-fest superhero movie.

The Wolverine has a very extreme ending though, which jumps right back into the superhero territory that it actually spends a large amount of time avoiding – this is more Yakuza than superhero a large part of the time. But at the end Wolverine is fighting a giant adamantium body suit with his old friend inside of it, and you might be wondering just where this CGI offering came from. It isn’t a badly paced ending by any stretch, it just feels wrong in the overall context of the movie, like the writers thought their film needed some kind of “end boss” or else it wouldn’t be a superhero movie anymore. Wolverine gets his adamantium claws cut off in that finale, which was a brutal and horrific thing to happen, and it looked kind of eerie in a good way, but you just know that somehow they’ll be restored to their shiny glory for the next one. Rather like losing his immortality, I can only imagine that its a temporary measure for drama purposes.

That they felt the need to have the villain literally try and suck the immortality out of Logan is also very extreme. I don’t know what else the production team could have done to avoid that kind of feeling, maybe not have quite so ridiculous an opponent for Wolverine to face at the conclusion or something, but what they did have was a real suspension of disbelief killer.

Add on a post-credit scene featuring Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and some allusions to Trask Industries. I dislike anything post-credits, and this was just a teaser for Days of Future Past, and a fairly uninteresting one at that, that offers little beyond the barest amounts of intrigue.

In the end, The Wolverine is caught between various different things, and a large amount of the time it isn’t a superhero movie. I mean, it is about a superhero, and it features superpowers and the like, but it also features ninjas and family politics and the Nagasaki bombing and bar fights and noodle stew before it goes back to superhero stuff. So long is the absence of the typical comic book elements that things like the final fight and the entire Viper character just seem out of place, which is not something I expected to think going into The Wolverine. I mean, the vast majority of the time he was just taking on normal men, and I was surprisingly ok with that (thanks largely to him losing his healing power, the kind of necessary plot element to introduce some level of tension that is frequently lacking with Logan). It is a superhero film, that should be less of superhero film in its general plot, and that’s not something you’ll see me recommending every day. Take away elements of the ending and change the identity of the main character, and it would suddenly just be an action movie.

The Wolverine features probably the best depiction of a nuclear attack I've ever seen on film.

The Wolverine features probably the best depiction of a nuclear attack I’ve ever seen on film.

This movie, unconnected to any of the larger stories you’d find in the X-Men films, or the crazy randomness of Origins: Wolverine, is a lot less epic and therefore more personal, which is a good thing, since this genre could do with going downwards on its sense of scale sometimes. Personal, serious and intense is good, and can be its own form of epicness as The Wolverine just about demonstrates. Not that’s The Dark Knight or anything, but it is certainly a more serious look at the Wolverine character than before.

Acting wise, High Jackman really isn’t up to much. While this actually might be his most iconic role (seven movies soon guys) it’s never been one that’s actually allowed him to do much as an actor, but it’s important to match that to the character. Logan is gruff, stoic, lonely and unemotional, a frontiersman in another age. That’s what the character is, how he’s nearly always been written, as a man who gets his emotional catharsis through extremely violent action, and whose most common trait, when it comes to emotion, being rage.

Jackman brings that to the character. While it wouldn’t be remiss to see him open up a bit more, especially in entry #6 of the franchise, I can’t really claim that Jackman is doing a disservice to the character when he emotes mostly in grunts, screams and the odd sarcastic comment. Jackman’s Logan only really has two settings: low, which comes with sarcasm, flippancy and the odd love scene attached, and high, with the growling, screaming and slashing. Logan is still a cool action hero, and the vagaries of the plot make him a sympathetic entity, but The Wolverine was never going to be about showcasing Jackman’s acting talent (which he does have, in spades).

Tao Okamoto, as Mariko, is the real stand-out. From the moment she attempts to commit suicide in the mansion, you’re given to understand that she’s a frail, damaged character, but then she grows into something more. While she’s mostly passive, reacting to whatever Logan and others do, I think enough is done, from the script and the performance, to make her a a strong enough character, or at least one that evolves into a position of strength by the end of the movie. Okamoto is a soft spoken actress, but she does well with her English lines, and is involved in most of the better acted scenes of the film, such as the dinner scene in Nagasaki. Like the others, she feels horribly out of place in the finale with the giant battle suit, but at least by then she’s actively taking a part in the final resolution.

In the end, her role is to be the new Jean Grey, the character that coaxes Logan out of his shell and convinces him to get back in touch with humanity. She succeeds in that, and I found her far more tolerable, even enjoyable, than the Famke Jannssen character.

Rila Fukushima is the other main Japanese role. While she’s not bad in her part as the pre-cognitive Yukio, she the worst cast-member when it comes to using the English language. While not exactly unintelligible, she has the most problems enunciating words and her lines frequently need some mental untangling for her to be understood. In the end, that badly affects her performance, as it’s hard to convey any emotion or acting talent when you’re struggling to even say your lines properly.

I mean, it’s an ok character. She’s visually very memorable, and the pre-cognitive aspect is an important plot tool. While perhaps over-done in so many other movies, it does add a little bit of tension and intrigue to proceedings. But that’s all ruined by the stuttering nature of the delivery. I completely understand that this is a problem for Asian actors – I mean, try and understand anything I say if I attempt to speak Japanese – but this is a big-budget production. It’s a really odd flaw to have for an important character.

Those three get the lion’s share of the screentime, but plenty of others are able to grab enough minutes for themselves to make an impression. Of them, Hiroyuki Sanada is probably the best. He’s practically an old-pro at this stage, having skipped between screen and theatre on both sides of the Pacific, and he has the right amount of presence and authority here, and even gets a believable motivation in the way he’s watched his father destroy the Yashida company. His sudden turn into the crazed, Viper-influenced samurai was actually really enjoyable, like the most reserved man on the planet finally letting loose.

Will Yun Lee is ok as the ninja leader, having some good turns in the action scenes, but ultimately doesn’t have enough to do. Haruhiko Yamanouchi and Ken Yamamura is actually the old and young aspects of the main villain, but they might appear for ten minutes or less. They both do fine in that time, probably better in the young form, but it’s hard to judge that last appearance, so distracting was the giant samurai battle suit he was wearing. Khodchenkova, the only other westerner in the main cast who isn’t a figment of Logan’s imagination, is similarly fine as Viper, but the character lacks a proper motivation, and you get the sense that it’s her looks and body that are the main reason she’s here, over genuine acting talent. She spits venom in both a real and figurative sense, and I suppose that’s all that is really required.

The only other person to talk about if Famke Janssen then. She does the competent job she has previously done as Jean Grey, but she’s trapped in a really unnecessary and derivative sub-plot, where she’s required to do little more than sigh deeply and look somewhat alluring.

Haruhiko Yamanouchi is a bit lame as young/old Yashida, a wanting villain, but at least provides for some interesting visual choices.

Haruhiko Yamanouchi is a bit lame as young/old Yashida, a wanting villain, but at least provides for some interesting visual choices.

There are some really good visuals here, of the real and computerised variety. Director James Mangold is glorying in the surrounds of Japan, from the technological to the natural. The neon streets are just as enticing a visual as the mountains and harbour of Nagasaki.

And on Nagasaki, that was probably the best CGI representation of a nuclear attack I’ve ever seen on film. Just really good at showing the scope and power of the A-Bomb and what it could do, and it made for a great opening sequence. The Wolverine goes from there and continues on in a good fashion.

The fight scenes are well put together. Yes, a fight on top of a train is hardly fresh, but at least The Wolverine tried to take such a thing on with a degree of realism attached – it was more about avoiding obstacles than fighting. The funeral shoot-out was really well put together in terms of illustrating the problem Logan was suddenly facing and the sword-fight in the mansion was just as good at illustrating the return of Logan’s power. In fact, the mansion itself was a wonderfully designed set, mixing old-fashioned traditional Japanese architecture with sleek shiny CGI in the medical room.

The Wolverine also features a few neat visual hooks and recurring imagery that raise it up as an experience. When Logan finds the spot where he was imprisoned in 1945 in the modern day Nagasaki, it adds to the feeling of a city rebuilt while bearing the scars of past assaults. When Logan encounter a dying bear having previously lived side by side with it, it adds to the one of the main themes of death and purpose. When he consistently leaves his chopsticks standing upright despite the admonitions of Mariko, it cleverly shows him as a westerner out of his depth in a very strange new culture.

It isn’t all good. The “Silver Samurai” suit looks pretty bad, and doesn’t blend in well with the rest of the environment, probably a result of most of the movie doing without similar CGI offerings. While looking interesting, it is far from welcome in a film of this nature, as was most of the finale, taking place in a catwalk filled laboratory that just looked wrong.

Script wise, it’s actually pretty tight, if not leaping off the screen and into your memory. The correct application of typical Wolverine dialogue – sarcasm laced with menace – abounds, while the other cast members are generally written quite well. Sometimes it goes too far – Viper isn’t written especially well for example, and seems to drip with the typical “scorned woman” lines – but you won’t find too much to complain about.

Mariko, being a largely passive character, has to make most of her mark through words, so it’s good that she’s really the best written character, especially in the basic one-on-one scenes with Logan in Nagasaki. Those words give a sense of fragility, propriety but also a hidden anger and desire for change. A lot of the other Japanese characters are given fairly basic words to say, especially Shingen and Harada.

Plenty of action movie cliché’s are onscreen in terms of wordplay, some not that tolerable, but they are pretty much par for the course for The Wolverine. Logan’s final retort to Yashida – “Sayonara”  was rather good, but for every moment like that, there are 20 others that are just more extensions of the typical John McClane style dialogue that we have come to expect from movies of this type. But a good mix of action lines, humour and the more interesting personal statements is created.

The music is decent, but not especially memorable, enough to act as an accompaniment to the action onscreen without wriggling into your memory enough that you’ll be humming the main theme a few days later. There is a good use of the expected Japanese “sound” to add to the setting, and the emphasis is on score over soundtrack, something that fits for a superhero movie.

The Wolverine, far more than its immediate predecessor in Origins: Wolverine, has much deeper themes to explore. The most obvious one that I can see is that of grief, at least as far as it goes for the titular character. Logan is interminably grieving for Jean Grey, to the extent that this grief has caused him to withdraw almost completely from the realm of humanity. That grief defines everything he does for most of the running time, as he hesitates in even going to Japan, and then getting involved with Mariko, because he doesn’t feel as if it is something he is even capable of doing.

The film builds to a ridiculous finale, a comic book ending that does not match the more serious tone of what preceded it.

The film builds to a ridiculous finale, a comic book ending that does not match the more serious tone of what preceded it.

This ties into a connected theme: learning to let go, specifically of grief. In his adventure in the land of the rising sun, Logan comes to terms with the loss of Jean and his own part in it, to the extent that he is finally able to achieve a measure of healing. Only through interacting with the rest of humanity, finding a causer worth fighting for, and finding the capacity to love again does this come about.

Other characters undergo the same process. Mariko has grief over the state of her life and the outlook for the future, to the extent that she contemplates suicide, but is able to find healing and happiness through Logan and the destruction of the higher echelons of the Yashida family. By the time the credits role she is in a position of authority and has let go of her past misgivings. Yukio has sadness over the limbo that she finds herself in within the Yashida family, but she too finds a better role to step into, through Logan. Obsession is a bad thing, The Wolverine makes this clear, with Yashida never-riding obsession leading him towards a dark and disturbing place, while other characters are able to let go of their obsessions and become better people as a result.

All of that ties into another dual theme yet again, that of death and purpose. Logan is essentially immortal as the story starts, dealing with all of the problems that brings: never being able to find peace, and a constant cycle of seeing his loved ones die before him. This has resulted in a singular loss of purpose as the movie begins, with Logan seemingly content to live out his days in isolation, only venturing into town to find batteries for his radio, “a ronin without a master”.

Enter Yashida, who has his own problems. He has nothing but a sense of purpose: a desire to keep living so that he can continue the work of his family and his corporation, as he swore he would do after surviving the A-Bomb attack. He gives Logan the choice: to transfer his powers. Yashida will gain the ability to keep going and fulfil his purpose, while Logan will get the chance to live as a normal man should, and eventually find peace through death.

It is a hard decision for Logan to make. To be caught in a limbo of never being able to rest, to ever contemplate outliving the ones you love, is a special kind of dilemma. But death is not the answer for Logan. The loss of his abilities is forced upon him, and results in a situation where he cannot properly protect people like Mariko. That scenario forces him to reject his previous isolation and re-foster a sense of purpose, leading him to reject the offer of death given to him by Yashida.

Yashida, greedy for life and willing to sacrifice large parts of his family and his empire for it, goes too far in his megalomaniacal schemes to gain immortality, and ends up losing everything. Logan gains internal peace and a renewed sense of purpose to his existence, one that we will presumably see more of in Days of Future Past.

Lastly, love as a theme is very much evident, in the divide and contrast between the idealistic and ultimately damaging love that Logan has for Jean Grey, the kind of love that is holding him back, and real love, the kind of Mariko, which brings happiness, healing and a rejection of isolation.

As I move towards a conclusion, I think it would be pertinent to make a comparison with Origins: Wolverine, as the first attempt to give Logan his own franchise. I think, in most respects, The Wolverine gets things right when Origins: Wolverine got them wrong. The Wolverine is an interesting, personal story where Origins: Wolverine attempted to make something large, epic and blustering. The Wolverine limits itself to interesting, interconnected supporting characters, where Origins: Wolverine seemed to want to throw in an unending stream of meaningless cameos. The Wolverine rows back on the use of CGI and big set-pieces (mostly) while Origins: Wolverine had poor CGI matched by an overuse of spectacle. The Wolverine at least leaves Logan in a new place, and takes him on a journey where the final destination wasn’t set while Origins: Wolverine had all the problems that any prequel could have.

And most importantly, Origins: Wolverine had a very campy feel to it at times, like large parts of it were a nod and a wink to the comic book audience. The Wolverine is far more serious, and enjoyable for that. As the Red Letter Media guys put it, in a rather brilliant comparison, “it’s like going from Batman and Robin to Batman Begins“.

The Wolverine is, undoubtedly in my mind, a better movie. It has a better plot, better setting, better cast, better acting, better CGI and deeper themes. It is a proper Wolverine story, told in an interesting, if only a bit of a formulaic, way. It continues the general X-Men tale in a manner that doesn’t quite live up to First Class, but still in a competent enough form to set-up next year’s return to the main franchise nicely. Recommended.

A decent offering that improves on past failures and shows the incredible longevity of this franchise.

A decent offering that improves on past failures and shows the incredible longevity of this franchise.

(All images copyright of 20th Century Fox)

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5 Responses to Review: The Wolverine

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