THE WOLVERINE (2013)
DIRECTED BY: James Mangold
WRITTEN BY: Christopher McQuarrie, Scott Frank, Mark Bomback
STARRING: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanda, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Brian Tee
Long story short: is it better than Origins? Yes, yes it is (though that’s not really saying much). Is it as good as First Class? No, not even close. The Wolverine occupies this weird, nebulous space in movie series’ where it’s not really the worst in the series, but it’s definitely not the best. It falls squarely in the middle. It doesn’t really carry much of its own identity as far as being an action film, but it’s really not an “X-Men” movie either. It doesn’t have ham-fisted social commentary and flashy mutant powers exploding on screen every five minutes, though I guess in some ways that’s a good thing. I mean, it’s certainly better than I thought it was going to be, but at the same time I can’t quite shake the feeling that it just wasn’t as good as I hoped.
Based loosely on the limited comics’ series Wolverine by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, this movie can be largely summed up as “Wolverine in Japan”. Tortured by the death of Jean Gray in X-Men 3, Logan (having given up the name Wolverine) is living the life of a hermit out in the wilderness, living from day to eternal day without any purpose or direction. This changes, though, when he’s approached by a young Japanese woman, Yukio, whose terminally ill employer has invited Logan to Japan so that he can thank him for saving his life decades before. He finds out, though, that there’s more to this offer than just saying goodbye, as he learns that there might be a way to end his eternal life. This embroils him in a seemingly deep web of intrigue involving Yakuza, corrupt politicians, and ninjas (lots of them).
I do applaud this movie for at least acknowledging that X-Men 3 exists, because the past few films seem to have gone out of their way not to touch that film with a ten foot pole (which is a shame because I think it’s kind of underrated). It’s also good that it’s acknowledgement of X-Men 3 is tied into what’s probably the story’s strongest aspect: the time that it spends delving into Wolverine as a character. It’s not exactly what you would call “in depth” but it does allow Hugh Jackman to flex his acting chops more than he usually gets to in these movies. The story has a lot of slow, quiet moments that really help the movie breathe a little bit in between action and exposition. There’s a sense that Logan is really struggling with the reasons for why he keeps going when everyone he knows and loves dies around him. This leads to at least a little effort to infuse a bit of personal motive into our hero’s actions. What I mean by that is that while Logan kills a lot of people in this movie, but it rarely felt like it was done just to fill an action quota. The action and violence is motivated, instead, by character and the plot, which I actually thought was kind of refreshing.
The supporting characters, however, are not so lucky. The movie tries to obfuscate our view of the whole picture so as to create the illusion of depth and complexity in their motivations. When we find out exactly what the scheme is and why the bad guys are doing it, my reaction was“…oh…o.k.” It’s wasn’t shocking, I wasn’t surprised. If the movie just was upfront about the plotting and crap up front the movie wouldn’t have had the wave its proverbial hands mysteriously making “oooooo” sounds to give the superficial illusion of “mysteriousness”. Pick one, movie, plot or character, because it doesn’t seem like you can handle both at the same time.
It wouldn’t be a very good Wolverine movie without some action, though, right? Does this movie deliver?…eh, I guess. I mean, it’s staged competently, it’s surprisingly visceral, I can usually tell what’s going on, though on occasion it relies on shaky cam to cover up its less thrilling parts. Probably its best action sequence is one that takes place on a bullet train (as you may have seen in the trailers). That’s where the movie’s action probably hits its creative peak. The problem is, though, this sequence happens a third of the way into the movie. Nothing afterwards really comes all that close in terms of creative action staging. The visual design is a lot like the action, competent. Some of the urban production design was noticeably subdued for “comic book movie set in Japan”. Though to tell the truth, I can’t even think any visuals that particularly stuck with me a week after seeing it. Again, it’s competent, but nothing extraordinary.
The film, unfortunately, falls apart pretty hard in its final act. What begins as a tonally inconsistent character study with action becomes a boringly uniform action movie with smatterings of character bits towards the end. All the build-up and complexity in Wolverine’s character gets swiftly swept under the rug and forgotten so he can, literally, storm the castle and save the princess. This comes complete with banal plot twists, a mustache twirling villain, and a bunch of deaths of characters I didn’t care all that much about anyways. I mean, the movie wasn’t exactly stellar to begin with, but any potential and good will it did earn on my part was pretty much chucked wholesale out the window by the time it was over. It just wasn’t set up for an overblown action climax. It tries to slow burn for a while, but I guess it just got bored and decided to just torches what was left with a flamethrower. That’s more exciting, right?
The movie ends pretty much as you’d expect it to: the day is saved, the status quo is restored, not really all that much else is changed (except for one thing, but that would be spoilers). You can tell the story was trying to be something more, trying to be something other than yet another superhero movie. However hard it tries, though, it can’t seem to help but fall back on old, tired clichés. Maybe this movie would have been interesting ten years ago, but sadly it doesn’t carry much weight for me after seeing this shtick a million times. It does end, though, with a stinger that ties into the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, that was kind of exciting. First Class proved that the X-Men franchise wasn’t quite dead just yet, so I’m anxious to see what “Days” will bring. If this is any indication, though, it may just end up settling for “o.k” as many X-Men movies tend to do. Only 2014 will tell whether this is the case or not.
RATING: * * ½ (out of four)