Saturday, March 4, 2017

The End Comes For Logan.

The Good: Decent performances, Effective use of mood, Moments of character
The Bad: Stifling mood, Generic chase plot, Overabundance of generic adversaries
The Basics: The story of Logan - The Wolverine - of the X-Men comes to a close in one of the most difficult films to grace the genre yet.

One of the difficult aspects of being a reviewer is that speed is often rewarded over accuracy. Early reviewers get a huge volume of traffic, they can set the entire tone for the reviews that follow, they can prejudice a massive number of potential audience members by putting their take into the marketplace first. The severe detraction of rushing a review out is that it does not allow the viewer to let the film live and breathe within them and in the case of big-budget special-effects driven films, often reviewers get so excited by the spectacle and (for less mature reviewers) the hype of early access that they do not actually consider what they watched in any objective sense.

So, it has been almost twenty-four hours since I watched Logan, the latest installment in the X-Men Saga and the film that has been widely announced as being Hugh Jackman's final portrayal of Wolverine and Patrick Stewart's final outing as Charles Xavier. And it could easily be. Logan includes a pretty sizable narrative gap between X-Men: Days Of Future Past (reviewed here!) - or the post-credits sequence from X-Men: Apocalypse - and one suspects that if the right script came along and the money was right, Jackman and/or Stewart might be up for another outing. But, for now, Logan is being billed as the end of the franchise.

And it's rough.

Logan is a tough movie and part of the reason I took almost a day to review it is that I was not sure how I felt about it. Logan has an entirely oppressive mood. After the Deadpool short attached to the print, Logan is introduced as a dreary, dark piece that sinks the viewer deeper and deeper into a morass of misery from which the film only briefly recovers. There are plenty of moody, dark pieces that I absolutely love . . . but Logan is not one of them.

It took me a few solid hours of mulling the film over to finally recognize that I did not enjoy Logan. And I was excited about Logan going in. I knew only the most basic premise of the graphic novel Old Man Logan - which influenced the creation of the film, though it is not at all an adaptation of that book - before I watched Logan and I was excited about both the reinvention of the character and the potential of actually seeing the Wolverine's story bookended. Given that virtually no one stays dead in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the X-Men films have gone to great lengths to resurrect and rewrite the histories of characters, the idea of a character whose story actually ends had more than a little appeal to me. But Logan is rough and joyless and when it is not that, it feels unfortunately derivative and like a series of genuinely missed opportunities.

Logan opens in 2029, twenty-five years after the last mutant was born and after most mutants have been wiped out through an act of genocide and a mysterious something else that actually comes up within the narrative. Logan has returned to using his mundane birth name - James Howlett - and he drives a limo between Texas and Mexico. Logan experiences daily pain, vastly slower regeneration of his wounds, and drinks and swears quite a bit more. He is also the primary caregiver for Charles Xavier, whom he has squirreled away in Mexico with the mutant Caliban.

Right off the bat, Logan gives a big, long, middle finger to the audience and fans of the X-Men Saga. Logan is R-rated and it is VERY R-rated and that is absolutely fine. But X-Men: Days Of Future Past climaxed with a scene filled with hope, fellowship, and a slew of dead characters and actors who returned to the franchise, spent hours and hours in make-up prep, just to say "hello." And, like the opening of Alien 3 (reviewed here!) which utterly destroyed the family Ripley had built in Aliens (reviewed here!) before the opening credits were done, Logan shits all over the potential of who and what the X-Men became after Logan saved the mutants from Trask and his insidious research by completely leaping beyond their stories. In fact, in Logan, the X-Men adventures were adapted into comic books, which Logan despises. But, the narrative gap and the loss of all of the familiar faces - save two - effectively sets up the tone of Logan. Logan is lost and mutantkind is virtually extinct.

Logan, Charles and Caliban are sequestered in Mexico - in one of the most subtle allusions to The Wolverine (reviewed here!) that could be made! - because Charles is dying and periodically, he has seizures which incapacitate everyone within a significant radius of him. Caliban complains that the effects are starting to wound him, but Logan keeps Xavier medicated to prevent the seizures from occurring while he works to earn enough money to buy a boat for the pair which would get them away from other people. When Logan acts as a driver for a funeral, he is accosted at the event by Gabriella, who begs Logan for help. Logan denies her aid and returns to Mexico with medicine for Charles and Caliban tells Wolverine that Charles has been very insistent in his ramblings that there is a new mutant. Logan does not believe him until he is approached by the cyborg "reaver" Pierce about getting back something that Gabriela has taken and then he is hired by Gabriela to get her and her "daughter" Laura to safety.

Logan only accepts the transport job because there is enough money in it to get him and the Professor the ship he wants. But, when Gabriela is killed and Laura hitches a ride back to Logan's hideout, Wolverine finds himself drawn into a conflict virtually identical to the one Han Solo found himself in after transporting Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. While Logan initially attempts to save himself and Charles, he quickly learns that Laura is deeply connected to him. Recovering Gabriela's smartphone, he learns about Transigen, a company that continues to experiment upon mutants and the place from which Gabriela rescued Laura. Logan also learns that Laura was created from his DNA and is, essentially, his daughter. But when Pierce and others from Transigen come hunting Laura, using the captured Caliban, Logan, Charles, and Laura are forced on the run in the direction of Laura's mythical "Eden" - a safe haven for the last surviving mutants.

Logan is an odd mix of cerebrally-disturbing, over-the-top violent, and painfully predictable and derivative. The intelligently-upsetting aspect of Logan comes from the fact that the two main protagonists are aging . . . and poorly in the film. Both Charles and Logan are undergoing serious physical deteriorations and Xavier's is particularly unsettling as it risks the lives of those around him. Logan illustrates very realistically some of the ugliness surrounding end-of-life issues in a fearless way that does not actually get shown in super hero films.

As for the violence, director James Mangold seems thrilled to be able to make an R-rated Wolverine-centered movie and he uses that canvas to the fullest. There are at least two decapitations, burned bodies, limbs that get sliced off, plenty of blood-spray from arterial stabbing and the obligatory throat-slashing or two (though the throats are not overdone in Logan, which is very nice). Logan, Transigen's cloned X-24, and the weaponized Laura (X-23 ) put their claws through multiple heads, arms, chests and legs, all while getting shot and stabbed at repeatedly. And just when it seems like James Mangold draws a line by not subjecting the viewer to a child getting their head blown off (the child's head is kept out of frame while menaced), he manages to up the stakes by having children combine forces to execute one person and have a single child shoot off an adult's head (or most of it). Logan is so R that the two people who brought their crying infants to last night's showing of the film should be arrested for child endangerment.

So, Logan is unsettling. And when it is not unsettling it is just bad. It's not all bad, let's be fair. On the plus side is the acting. Stephen Merchant is excellent as Caliban. Caliban was briefly introduced in X-Men: Apocalypse (reviewed here!) and had to be recast because the events of Logan follow almost fifty years after the events of Apocalypse. Merchant is brilliantly serious in the role of Caliban, a mutant who barely uses his powers and instead tries to get Logan to open up and talk to him like an adult. Merchant emotes quite a bit through his eyes to make Caliban concerned, fearful and determined and he plays the full range well.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart show off their immense range in Logan as well, though there is nothing surprising from either actor in their performances. Two amazing actors manage to play hurt, frustrated, strong, senile, and strangely loving, not surprising at all. Eric La Salle might well be in that category, too, but I've not seen him in much else, so I was impressed by his performance. Elizabeth Rodriguez shows off her range by playing Gabriela as desperate and frightened in a way she was never allowed to play her Orange Is The New Black character.

Of course, much of Logan hinges on the performance of Dafne Keen, who plays Laura. Keen spends most of the film mute and, as a result, has to act with her eyes, body and in reaction shots to what other people are saying. And she is good. Keen plays off Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, and especially Quincy Fouse like a pro. More than simply playing the creepy little girl type (who can rip off your head or possess you), Keen manages a wide range of emotions with minimal words in a compelling break-out performance.

But, for as good as Keen's performance is, Laura represents a serious missed opportunity for Logan. From her first appearances in the compound, Xavier challenges Logan by asking him "doesn't she remind you of someone?" Xavier is trying to get Logan to make the leap that Laura is his daughter and he should see in her his previous, feral, qualities. But Dafne Keen is presented with a high brow and intense eyes and fans of the X-Men films would have no trouble seeing that she could remind Logan of Jean Grey. Yet, in Logan, the Transigen documents claim that Laura was created from James Howlett's DNA, not a hybrid of Logan and Jean Grey. This is especially disappointing because X-Men fans know that the mutant gene is passed through the father, so how Logan's X-chromosome was used to make a mutant daughter makes no scientific sense. Logan's writers could have easily eliminated this argument and given an added layer to Laura - and Logan through his conflict over taking care of her! - by making her a hybrid child of Logan and Jean Grey.

In a similar fashion, James Mangold and his co-writers seem to lack a real understanding of how and why people use bounty hunters and they gut the originality of Logan in the process. Logan begins as a mood piece that explores survivors of a genocide when a bounty hunter comes into Logan's life. Pierce is employed by Dr. Rice, who is shown in Gabriela's footage experimenting at Transigen on the mutant children he has created. And he is used very well there and Richard E. Grant was wonderfully cast for him. But then he comes into the field and becomes a painfully generic comic book style villain. And the kicker of it is that it is so thoroughly unnecessary.

Dr. Rice is credited by Pierce as being the architect of the mutant genocide. He succeeded where Trask failed and he has spent the years since virtually wiping out mutants making his own mutants for controlled mutant soldiers. He is a monster. He is a monster who works in Mexico and has a free pass to enter the United States . . . only Canada (in Logan) sees him as a criminal and the subjects of his experiments as viable life forms worthy of asylum. Here's the point of the problem with Dr. Rice; there is nothing that can be done in Logan that would justify putting him in the field and menacing his life. Dr. Rice is not in prison, he is not being hunted by an international tribunal; he freely works in Mexico, comes to the United States, has direct authority over his private little army of bounty hunters . . . all this after wiping out most of mutantkind. So, if Dr. Rice is responsible for killing (for example, it is not stated in Logan) Rogue, Jean Grey, Mystique, Storm, Beast and Magneto, his one death cannot balance even a fraction of the lives he took and there is no real emotional catharsis to his death or even any menace that his life is put in. So why bother with it?! The only reason - outside the fact that he is a comic book villain conceit - is that the writers do not understand the nature of those who employ bounty hunters. Dr. Rice relies upon Pierce and X-24 to get the job done for him and he has, presumably, survived as long as he has by keeping distance from his experiments. There is nothing in Logan that justifies him coming into the field.

So, Dr. Rice falls into the trap of a generic comic book villain when Logan already has Pierce as a compelling enough proxy for the scenes that were not focused on man vs. society and man vs. nature (age) . . . or even man vs. himself type conflicts. And in that way, Logan continues to disappoint. The moment Charles Xavier accepts an invitation from the Munson's to go back to their home, Logan takes a straight like into Derivativeville that every fan of the X-Men Saga will see coming. We wait for those pursuing Logan, Charles and Laura to catch up to them at the Munson's because we saw the exact same thing happen when Logan was rescued by the senior citizen couple in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (reviewed here!). Between that and the common conceit of "if a bullet is introduced in the first act . . .," Logan plays toward the painfully predictable at all of the opportunities it had to truly surprise viewers.

And that's where it ends. Logan had potential and it is set up very well to be a well-done, truly unsettling film that explored consequences, end-of-life issues and last-minute redemption for a man who never should have been a father; a super-hero film that mentions easements and political asylum. But instead of playing to those aspects, Logan becomes oppressive and harsh in ways that we come to expect and it ends up saying nothing truly new to the audience.

For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
The Great Wall
War On Everyone
The Founder
Underworld: Blood Wars
La La Land


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

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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