Hugh Jackman is back in The Wolverine as director James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) takes over the reigns of the famed X-Men character, haunted by his past and dealing with his uncertain future. Set almost entirely in Japan and based on the famed 1980s storyline, Jackman's Logan goes on his own solo adventure in a strange land, shedding most of the character's cinematic baggage for an intriguing, refreshing one-off adventure, full of ridiculous violence and darkly psychological themes.
The Wolverine is, by all comparisons, a very small, somewhat personal film set in the X-Men universe. It all but ignores the disastrous and nonsensical prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine (thanks to amnesia bullets, no doubt) and only really refers to the events after X-Men: The Last Stand. Logan retreats to the woods as he's haunted by the ghost of his true love Jean Grey after killing her to save the world. Jackman bleeds masculinity and engulfs the role, relishing in having new surroundings with a new creative team behind his iconic role.
Logan is summoned to Japan to grant the wishes of a dying old friend. This sets off a violent power struggle with the Canadian mutant firmly in the middle. It's amusing to witness our beloved Wolverine navigating a brand new, unfamiliar setting around mostly non-mutants. Mangold makes the film feel fairly intimate with artful cinematic flourishes and character work, but slowly builds to a maddening finale, setting the film vastly off course due to a series of confusing plot mechanics. I kept wondering what was going on plot wise and who was on who's side until things are finally revealed.
The Wolverine is extremely violent and manages some pretty graphic imagery for its (ludicrous) PG-13 rating. Logan kills one series of nameless henchmen after another without any consequences.
Svetlana Khodchenkova's Viper is a shadowy snake-like (as the name would suggest), evil mutant thrown into the film with zero explanation as to her motivations or true villainy. The film lacks a substantive opposing villainous force for Wolverine to be antagonized by (a few half-villains are substituted instead) as he's perpetually on the run before becoming the hunter himself. Japanese actress Tao Okamoto is very good as Mariko, the central figure behind the plot, surrounding family drama and Logan's love interest. She underplays her mysteriousness and has a charming presence on screen. Sidekick Rila Fukushima is fun and bad ass playing Logan's pseudo bodyguard and companion hunting down bad guys.
Mangold deserves credit for crafting a cinematically interesting, insular portrait of the mutant known as Wolverine. I found the first half a slow, tense, gripping tale about the ultimate outsider exploring his inner demons and violent tendencies. By the end, it morphs into the sillier, more graphic and very uneven action extravaganza that sunk its predecessor. It doesn't quite pull off being both the dark, brooding character piece and full on superhero film it wants to be, but is effective, nonetheless.
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