‘The Wolverine’: Good enough

July 26, 2013


Whatever else you may say about “The Wolverine,” the latest Marvel comic-book adventure to reach the big screen, say this: It takes guts – and, apparently, both a big movie star and a popular hero – to get Hollywood to spend a bundle on a tentpole movie the bulk of whose characters are Japanese.

Hollywood has a massive fear of foreign film and stars who either don’t speak English or don’t look obviously American. Why? Because Americans – particularly that crucial young audience, many of whom seem to spend so much of their time writing and reading texts – apparently hate subtitles. (And black-and-white – but that’s another issue.)

So while, yes, “The Wolverine” is about a famous comic-book figure (the most popular of the X-Men), it’s still a movie that is primarily set in Japan and features mainly Japanese actors. (Though its subtitles are, in fact, minimal.)

Thankfully, there is more to be grateful for than just Hollywood’s (reluctant) effort at diversity. Director James Mangold, working from a script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, has made an extremely entertaining comic-book movie – though a comic-book movie nonetheless. Which means that it is long on action and short on tension, filled with the antics of the engagingly gruff, anger-management-challenged mutant named Logan, played by Hugh Jackman.

Set after the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand” (and long after the story in the sorry “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), “The Wolverine” finds Logan living in the woods somewhere in the American northwest. (This, after a prologue that shows him as a Japanese POW near Nagasaki, saving the life of a guard when the Americans drop the A-bomb.)

He’s plucked from his hermit-like existence by a young Japanese girl with crimson hair and a wicked touch with a samurai sword. She’s Yukio (Rila Fukushima), the adoptive granddaughter of the man Logan saved in Japan. That man is dying in Tokyo and has sent her to bring him back so he can personally thank Logan once again.

In fact, the man, whose name is Yashida, is now Japan’s biggest industrialist. And, though he’s dying, he’s convinced that he can live on if he can tap into Logan’s amazing healing powers. In exchange, he offers Logan a chance to finally become mortal and be at peace.


Before Logan can say yes or no, however, he finds himself attending the old man’s funeral – which is disrupted by a yakuza attack. The Japanese gangsters attempt to kidnap Yashida’s other granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) – but Logan intervenes, though not without taking several slugs to the chest.

More to the point, though he gets her away, he’s not healing as fast as he usually does. Could it have something to do with that dream he had the night Yashida died – the one where Yashida’s slinky female doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova) was breathing some sort of green mist into his mouth?

The action builds from there, with more climaxes than an overacting porn star. In the end, it’s another story of a hero coming to appreciate his unappreciated powers only when he loses them. Logan must also try to deal with his lingering guilt about (spoiler alert) the fact that he had to kill Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) at the end of “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

Janssen, in fact, is the only familiar gaijin face in the cast (at least until midway through the closing credits), popping up in Logan’s dreams to beckon to him from the great beyond. But Logan’s not quite ready to walk into the light.

Neither, apparently, is the X-Men movie series. Where Gavin Hood bollixed up Wolverine’s initial solo adventure, Mangold finds a way to focus on the emotions as much as the action. Logan is a tortured soul, convinced he’s unlovable (“Everyone you love dies,” Jean coos) because he’s got that big mutant target painted on his back. That, and that massive chip on his shoulder which tends to trigger the steel – oops, adamantium – claws that pop out of his knuckles.

The fights are exciting – and yet there feels like little is at stake because, repeatedly, Wolverine shows he’s incapable of being killed, even when impaled on twin swords. Nor does the suspense rise when he loses his regenerative power, because it’s so early in the movie that you know he can’t die yet.

Or ever. I’ll hand it to Mangold and the writers: They do come up with some surprises that suddenly bring tingles of tension to the film. Too often, however, it plays out like kabuki, as in a scene in which Wolverine battles an army of ninja archers, who turn him into a pincushion of arrows with ropes attached. You know he can’t die; you know it can’t be the end of the movie. So where’s the fun?

Somehow they find it, thanks to an ending that actually does create suspense and even a couple of revelations. Jackman has a way with a growled one-liner – and, certainly, the idea of turning him into the bull in the, um, bullet train (perhaps the film’s most entertaining sequence) in Japan is one that resonates.

Not that it bears too much thinking. The idea of Wolverine as a ronin – a samurai without a master – is mentioned a couple of times. It’s meant to be a tragic theme. But that’s such a Japanese concept that it’s hard to imagine it resonating with American audiences.

No matter: “The Wolverine” is fun and diverting. It’s not great but, hey, it’s good enough.

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