Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Potential For Sleeper Hit: The Wolverine (Largely) Satisfies!

The Good: Acting, Character development, Decent direction
The Bad: Moments where the film tries for big, superhero conflicts
The Basics: With The Wolverine, Hugh Jackman, James Mangold, Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, and Christopher McQuarrie once again make the loner mutant the coolest super hero on the block!

As Summer Blockbuster Season reaches its midpoint, it is easy to feel a sense of burnout. After all, almost every week the moviegoing public is bombarded with an advertising campaign for the next big film calculated to win the weekend’s box office race before the next behemoth is released to usurp it. This summer is an especially crowded one and one imagines that the advertising budget for these blockbusters could feed most of the world for an entire year. So, it says something when one of the films virtually guaranteed to win its weekend takes a quieter approach to marketing, which is the case with the latest X-Men spinoff movie: The Wolverine.

The Wolverine returns Hugh Jackman to the role that it seems like he was born and trained to play and his return to the part of Logan is anything but obvious and familiar. In fact, for the bulk of The Wolverine, Jackman seems content to show off his moody depths and a range more akin to his performance in Les Miserables (reviewed here!) than X-Men (reviewed here!). Rather smartly, director James Mangold lets Jackman run for a while in the more cerebral direction and the script by Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, and Christopher McQuarrie gives Jackman and Mangold plenty of opportunities to build a sense of isolation in Logan that plays well to an audience who wants more than simply huge fight scenes and superheroic displays of power.

In fact, The Wolverine works best when it avoids the hyperbolic displays common in action films and the superhero genre. Sadly, the movie degenerates into that, but not before it is largely satisfying as a ninja (ronin? I’m not exactly up on my Japanese lone warrior terminology) quest style film. It is worth noting up front that I did not loathe X-Men Origins: Wolverine (reviewed here!) the way most critics and fans did and I have not read the Frank Miller books upon which The Wolverine gleaned some of its important ideas. This is a rather pure review of the film The Wolverine unencumbered by notions of what it ought to be from the source material.

Opening in World War II, Logan is in Japan where he saves the life of a young soldier, Yashida. Yashida promises to repay Logan’s kindness, but Logan’s life progresses through solitude and pain to the near future (following X-Men III: The Last Stand, reviewed here!) where he has once more split himself off from society. Even in his isolation and the guilt he feels over killing the woman he loved, Logan is not able to disappear; he is tracked by Yukio. Yukio brings Logan to Japan where the now very old, very successful, and near-death Yashida is prepared to make good on his promise to Logan.

Yashida has devised a method to make Logan mortal and when it appears that the process is successful, against his will, Logan finds himself in Japan experiencing all the anxieties one might expect when an invulnerable man is suddenly vulnerable and alone. Unfortunately for Logan and Yukio, Yashida’s methods have been exploited by a dangerous villain, Viper. While Logan no longer wanted immortality, Viper and several others did and the secrets Logan possesses make him a hunted man at a time when Viper might just be able to bury him. As Logan struggles to protect Yashida's granddaughter, who is hunted for the inheritance she will receive, the Wolverine begins to feel again and move beyond Jean Grey.

While The Wolverine ends up pairing Logan and Mariko together for the bulk of Logan’s tenure in Japan, the film never degenerates into feeling like any sort of lame buddy action movie. Instead, for the bulk of the movie, The Wolverine focuses on Logan’s character journey. He begins at a very natural point of feeling guilty and as he protects himself and Yukio, and later himself and Mariko, he fights for a sense of redemption that plays well considering how easy it could be to make Wolverine into a mindless brute.

The Wolverine in fact only falls down when it relegates the growling, moody mutant to the role of action hero able to fight a small army of ninjas on his own. Even in those sequences that stretch the reality of the rest of the movie, though, The Wolverine maintains decent special effects and a focus on Logan. The special effects succeed because director James Mangold gives the viewer time enough to see them and they respond to a realistic set of physics.

The internal conflict that Logan is wrestling with falls away as Viper rises to the forefront in the latter half of the film. To its credit, The Wolverine does not try to overwhelm viewers with star power. Outside Russian cinema, Svetlana Khodchenkova who plays Viper is a virtual unknown. To her credit, in physical presence, emoting the lines, and body language, Khodchenkova holds her own with Hugh Jackman. She may not be given the choice lines, but she plays the part of Viper well enough to be credible.

In a similar fashion, Rila Fukushima assumes the role of Yukio in a way that makes it easy to forget that Anna Paquin could have been filling the sidekick niche as Rogue for most of the movie. Fukushima has decent on-screen chemistry and charisma to play off Jackman and make their scenes together work.

Ultimately, The Wolverine is a quieter, more character-centered journey for Logan and it puts most of the decisions in his hands, as opposed to the machinations of every villain still standing in the post-X-Men III universe. That is a refreshing change of pace in a summer filled with bloated blockbusters moving so fast that the directors and studios hope one does not notice how flimsy the plots are. That makes The Wolverine well worth watching . . . more than once.

For other movies based upon the Marvel comic books, please check out my reviews of:
The Avengers
Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance
Captain America: The First Avenger
X-Men: First Class
Iron Man 2
The Incredible Hulk
Spider-Man 3
Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer
Blade: Trinity


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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