The Wolverine  (2013)

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It’s the Wolverine story everyone was waiting for, once we got the origin crap out of the way: he goes to Japan and fights some ninjas and shit. Some of this is loosely adapted from a tale by our pal Frank Miller.

Word of mouth is that a lot of people stayed away from this because of how much they didn’t like the Origins movie that came before it. Further word of mouth said that was their loss, as I heard it spoken of as being a far better film than that was.

Speaking as someone who liked X-Men Origins: Wolverine more than most people did, I have to say that to me the two films don’t seem all that different. To be sure the new one has a distinct advantage in that it’s not telling an origin story, and it lacks the terrible butchered Deadpool-in-name-only character — these are both plusses, for sure, but not big enough ones to make all that dramatic a difference. Neither of those was all that big a part of the overall film; there was lots that’s just about Wolvie being Wolvie, and I rather liked the way it sort of went for a tone that was, you might say, more lyric than epic.

This newer film does likewise. It’s an odd quality that you almost never saw in older action movies, marking this, like its predecessor, as an unmistakably twenty-first century film. It has a sort of peace at the heart of the violence, a patient calm behind the bursts of fury. This well suits the tale of a man who’s lived a century and a half, and has little need anymore for urgency and haste.

Both films have an element of beauty to them. For the older one, it was mainly that of the primeval north woods; for this, it’s that of Japan. The cinematography has some quite nice touches now and again that are done in a very Japanese way, tipping its hat to people like Kurosawa who defined the style of the nation’s cinema canon. And they make sure to include plenty of good old flashy swordplay and archery in the battle scenes — this Japan is as full of skilled masters of these photogenic weapons as cinematic China is full of kung fu experts. And yeah, there are ninjas.

On the other hand, when it comes to the big action scenes, the filming can get a bit muddled. It doesn’t go all Jason Bourne or anything, but there’s been a bit of loss of clarity relative to some of the other X-films. And the big climactic battle is actually a step down in whoa-cool excitement from the fight against bogo-Deadpool.

But the enemies are definitely classier: the adamantium-plated Silver Samurai is fairly awesome, and has the rare ability to genuinely hurt the Wolverine. And he’s not even the only such character in the film! That final battle may not have as much visual excitement, but the stakes are higher, and consequently the impact is more visceral.

The setup is, Wolvie’s reluctant visit to Japan just happens, by noncoincidental coincidence, to take place at the time when rival factions of a wealthy family are out to contest control of the nation’s most successful technology company. The founder, Mr. Yashida (who has a history with Wolvie from WWII) is dying, and various other businessmen and their pet yakuza gangsters start making with the kidnappings and the assassinations and the gun battles, and our man Logan ends up acting as impromptu bodyguard for the founder’s granddaughter Mariko, the one named by the old man as his chosen successor, who might be the only decent human being of the bunch.

But then, in the middle part of the film, he’s having a harder and harder time fighting off her attackers, because his mutant healing ability is failing him, and the lasting injuries are starting to pile up. Is he finally getting too old? Is it a psychological block, arising from a longing for death that’s becoming steadily more overt? Or has someone done something to him? Whatever the cause, he now has to face a very real possibility that after a double lifetime of invulnerability, this job he never wanted might be the death of him.

The story is kind of meandering in parts. The middle section doesn’t move forward very briskly. And the deepening relationship with Mariko (yeah, that happens) doesn’t have a lot of weight or resonance — certainly not as much as Logan’s haunting memories of the long departed Jean Grey. That relationship actually feels like it has more juice and heart in it now than ever came through in the early films when they were around each other in real life. (Famke Janssen, appearing in his memory and imagination, puts some solid emotion into her performance, and does a good job of still looking thirty-five instead of fifty.) But the villains, the occasional random mutants who pop up in the story, and the assorted greedy scions of the Yashida clan, are all interesting and sharply-drawn characters (though a few of the men end up having similar enough looks to be visually confusing), and pretty much everyone is well-acted.

That especially goes for Hugh Jackman in the lead role, who still stands as the supreme exemplar of onscreen badasshood in superhero movies, just as he did a decade earlier. When someone pisses him off, he’s fuckin’ terrifying, even though you never doubt his good heart. (And you know that’s some mighty skillful acting, because when I see Hugh Jackman being himself instead of playing a character, he often comes across as a complete pussy.) He is, in the end, the reason this movie was worth making.

Physically, he’s starting to get to the point where he’ll soon be too old for the role, but he makes up for it by hitting the gym harder than ever. For this shoot, Hugh Jackman was indeed a huge jacked man. Especially the “jacked” part: there may be bigger guys in some of these superhero movies, but I haven’t ever seen anyone else this ripped.

Rumor has it that he’ll do the role for the final time in 2017. He’ll be forty-nine then. He was thirty-one when he began it, which is certainly not a bad run.

So in sum, this may be a somewhat minor comic book movie, and far from perfect, but it has quite a bit to recommend it, and it’s overall a worthy addition to the X-Men series. And like all of the X-films, it maintains that core level of audience respect that all of the other franchises eventually end up lapsing on.