The short review: While overlong, James Mangold’s The Wolverine is a high octane cocktail of ninjas, noir and adamantium-laden action that will leave you feeling refreshed and thirsty for more.
The long review:
Let’s get this out of the way so we can free ourselves from the adamantium shackles of history: X-Men Origins: Wolverine was an unmitigated trainwreck of a film. If I had to choose between watching X-Men Origins again and sending my only child to die in the Hunger Games, I’d throw up the Mockingjay salute and bid my spawn adieu. That being said, The Wolverine was such a successful film for me that I’d all but forgotten my initial trepidation about subjecting myself to another two-hour Wolverine solo outing. It’s such a relief to feel this way, because Hugh Jackman is the best at what he does and what he does is play our favorite musclebound Canadian ass-kicker with heart, panache and a reverence for what makes Logan tick. Much like Robert Downey Jr. has done with Iron Man, Jackman has lashed himself to the mast of Wolverine’s character in such a way as to render them inseparable.
When James Mangold was first announced as the film’s director, seismologists noticed a marked uptick in the number of eyebrows being raised across the country. He’d proven himself as a capable writer-director on films like Walk the Line, Girl Interrupted, and Cop Land, but tackling a monolithic figure like Wolverine is a mutant horse of a different color. Rather than a straight up superhero story, Mangold wisely taps into elements of noir and hard-boiled espionage that keep the action interesting, the mood tense, and the plot packed with enough intrigue to keep us interested. Well, interested for the first hour and change, at least. The film’s greatest crime is that it outstays its welcome, and, unlike a comic book, you can’t just put it down and pick it up again later when you regain interest. That being said, it’s a misdemeanor compared to the cinematic felonies of previous outings with the Ol’ Canucklehead.
Mangold’s smartest decision is in how he manages to make the story feel simultaneously sprawling and self-contained. Based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s seminal Wolverine mini-series, which finds Logan heading to Japan to carve a bloody path through ninjas, Yakuza, and other big baddies to save the love of his life, Mariko, The Wolverine is a savvy introduction to a seminal part of the character’s mythos. Much like how Iron Man 3 plumbed the depths of the man behind the suit, The Wolverine explores the man behind the claws, tapping into his rich history and examining some of the formative events that made him into the gruff killing machine with a heart of gold he is today.
After saving a Japanese soldier’s life in Nagasaki during World War II, Logan is summoned to Japan years later in order to pay his final respects to his old friend. His chaperone is Yukio (the excellent Rila Fukushima), a petite Japanese girl who has the mutant ability to see when people die and the preternatural ability to kick asses and take names. The slender spitfire makes an excellent sidekick for Logan; They play off each other nicely and have a natural rapport that manages to dole out exposition and action in equal measure. What happens next is a Matroyshka doll of betrayal, revenge, Yazuka, and ninja fighting and memories of past transgressions, all of which Logan is forced to deal with without the aid of his trusty healing factor. At times, though, it seems that Mangold’s ultimate message is that a healing factor can’t fix emotional scars; They merely scab over, leaving them to be picked at and fester no matter how hardened of a killer one is.
The rest of the supporting cast proves formidable, especially the instantly untrustworthy and deliciously dislikable Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a villain who mixes the cool cunning of Emma Frost with the bombast of Enchantress and all the venom and nanotech that Hydra has to offer. Much like Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I, her greatest fault is that we don’t get to see enough of her in action. Less successful is Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who, much like her counterpart in the comics, isn’t nearly as lively or engaging as the rest of the characters. This isn’t to say she gives a bad performance; rather, it’s like a sprig of rosemary on your plate – it’s just kind of there.
For my money, The Wolverine is one of the best superhero films of the summer and one of the best X-Men films to date. It manages a stripped down story without sacrificing the action, and hits many of the marks one would expect from a summer tentpole without coming across as too bombastic. Even the stakes of the film are refreshing – Wolverine isn’t out to save the world, he’s trying to save the woman he loves and himself. That may make it a mutant among the big budget blockbusters that have dominated the cinematic landscape this summer, but ultimately it is to Mangold and Jackman’s credit and allows it to cut through the competition. Though the film suffers from an overlong script and a penchant from transitioning scenes by simply knocking Wolverine out (is this the new star wipe?), The Wolverine is still some of the most fun you can have this summer season, and looks like it’s the healing factor that this franchise sorely needed.
Oh, and make sure you stick around for the post-credits sequence, bub. ‘Nuff said.
James Mangold’s The Wolverine is in theaters and Danger Rooms everywhere. Did you see the film? Let us know what you thought in the comments below!