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Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: The Wolverine

When The Wolverine opens, we find the titular hero imprisoned in a well in World War II era Nagasaka just before the Atomic Bomb drops. I was immediately reminded of the Concentration Camp scene in the first X-Men when young Erik and his family are separated by the Nazi horde. The bookended nature of both of these prologues are simple in concept, but also allows you to dig deeper to think about the ramifications of the actions of its central characters. Erik is drug down by the worst of humanity and it sets the course for his impressions about humankind, and the eventual villainy he'll fall into as Magneto. On the other hand, Logan alternatively saves an enemy combatant's life by pulling him into the well with him before the bomb drops, thusly enacting his first truly heroic action of a long-lived life. The parallels between the beginning and the end of WWII, and the two worst moments of the entire conflict being featured as prologues in both films are also worth noting as a part of the somewhat circular narrative being built in the series. The scene is also out together in such a simple fashion, without heavy-handedness, that it's easy to just sit back and enjoy it for nothing more than background information. For the most part, this describes my feelings around The Wolverine to a T: simple, intimate, and a film carried by probably the best central performance of the big box office summer films this year. It's a shame that the final act mars the whole thing, until then, I would have argued this was the best of the summer.

Taking place after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, The Wolverine opens with Logan (Hugh Jackman) living out in the wilderness, returning to the state he was in before Charles Xavier took him in. Haunted by dreams of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the woman he had to murder to save innocent lives, Logan resembles a hermit or a drifter. Circumstances eventually pull him out of his hiding, and into Japan where the man he saved in Nagasaki, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) summons Logan for a dying request. After he passes, Logan becomes the protector of Yashida's granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) after she is targeted by the Yakuza. Logan gains a sidekick in Mariko's long-time friend Yukio (Rila Fukushima), another helping hand with slightly more mysterious motives in Harada (Will Yun Lee), and a villainous thorn in his side named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), whose ultimate goal is to strip Logan of his powers that have caused his functional immortality.

What works best about The Wolverine is that it doesn't feel like your standard big budget film (or even superhero film), particularly those that came out this summer. The entire world isn't threatened, the president isn't being kidnapped, there aren't mass amounts of destruction. What works about The Wolverine is in how personal it feels, the main conflict between Logan and the Yakuza is only half the story, the real meat of the movie is the internal struggle he faces within himself. Every time he closes his eyes to sleep, he's reminded of Jean and why he's a "solider in hiding". At the same time, Logan is coming to grips with his immortality and place in the world. Much of the film resembles something more like an Eastern take on "Unforgiven", and having a director like James Mangold, who is quite adept at character pieces, is a huge boon to the film's fortunes. Mangold is able to utilize both the Frank Miller/Chris Claremont source material and the script by Christopher McQuarrie to his advantage, telling a self-contained adventure that's able to display character nuance than is rarely present in your standard Marvel yarn. Throughout, the focus remains on Logan, who is the most compelling character of the entire X-Men series, and this singular bit of attention keeps the film on track and worth watching, until it degrades a bit out of nowhere. The Wolverine is a case of smaller absolutely being better.

The movie isn't all character beats and brooding though, as there are some spectacular action beats that are more than just perfunctory. Particularly, there's a thrilling scene atop a 300 mile per hour Bullet Train that may be my favorite action scene of the entire year so far, as well as a fight scene at a funeral that keeps the tension high and the action very clear. Mangold isn't the most exciting or innovative director, but the man knows how to stage a shot in a competent fashion. Another highlight worth noting, is a neat scene where Logan is trying to get to Mariko as he's being chased by a large gang of black-clad ninjas. The Ninjas, in an attempt to capture him, fire arrows with ropes attached at his person. The visual of Logan still trying to make his way to the villain's fortress, filled to the brim with arrows, reminded me of the some of the better shots I've seen in old Westerns, or more accurately "East Meets West" cinema. I'm certain that the culture presented herein is likely about as accurate as science is in a Star Trek film, but as a comic book fantasy version of Japan, I got sucked in. Mangold's comic-pop Japan is one of samurais, black clad gangsters, and anime-like heroines with candy colored hair. It helps that the humor is pretty sharp too, sitting somewhere between Iron Man 3's over-reliance on the one-liner and Man of Steel's utter seriousness.

It's not a perfect time at the cinema though. As said a few times above, the last 20 minutes take an absolute nose-dive in quality, featuring Logan fighting a robot that looks like it wandered off the set of Robocop 2 or one of the Iron Man films, but with worse CGI. This disappointingly generic end, and slightly forced romance angle that is included therein, feels more like something that would have been in the preceding film, the justifiably maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine. If someone had told me that a completely different director and writing team had walked on set to produce that final bit, I'd definitely believe them, as it sticks out like a sore thumb from the far more driven and engaging first 90 minutes. The film also has trouble deciding who the actual villain is for most of the running time, that's not to say that any of them are unconvincing; but there are a number of minor baddies that creep up throughout (and characters with hidden agendas), but none of them ever step to the fore as a truly capable threat. When the final "mastermind" is revealed, it's a clever enough idea, but because of how those final beats are executed, the inventiveness of the storytelling is lost in a generic CGI-enhanced, mustache twirling mish-mash. There's also a little bit of a miss in the idea of Logan only half-way losing his regenerative powers. It seemed like Mangold and company wanted to up the stakes, but not so much that they couldn't have Logan get shot a number of times. I think a more compelling scenario would have had him lose his powers outright, but to be fair, perhaps that ground has been trod too often in superhero cinema. 

Hugh Jackman, who is more ripped here than I've ever seen him, finally has an outlet in which he can exercise his chops and explore some of the nuance in Logan's characterization without having to fight for time with other mutants. Jackman's performance is the central one, and by the time credits roll, probably the only one worth caring about, but it's a darn good one. His passion for this character shines through to every bit of film captured here, and even in his sixth appearance as the character (soon to be his seventh next year) he still throws all of himself into the role. Jackman also displays some terrific chemistry with all of his female co-stars, most notably Fukushima, who ends up becoming the Robin to his Batman. Okamoto's Mariko is a means to an end more than a fully-fleshed out character, but she has a nice breezy presence and works well with Jackman throughout. The only outright awful performance belongs to Khodchenkova who is under-motivated and terrible throughout.

The Wolverine is a strong capper for the original series of X-Men films, satisfying the emotional journey of the amnesiac Logan that we encounter in the first X-Men. The central plot is a change of pace from the standard fare we've come to expect this year and is very welcome. Had it been able to maintain its quality of simple, yet elegant storytelling throughout, I'd have no problems calling it my favorite of the summer. As it is, The Wolverine is a fun, but flawed feature, that's worth it for Jackman's performance alone and the closure he and Mangold give to Logan's multi-film character arc.

I give it a B

Speaking of that upcoming seventh performance, stick around for about a third of the credits for a scene that sets up the upcoming conflict to be seen in X-Men: Days of Future Past next year that mixes the cast of the previous X-Men series with that of the semi-reboot/prequel X-Men: First Class. The premise of which sounds exciting, but after getting a much more down to earth tale such as this one, returning to apocalyptic stakes almost feels like a step back. No wonder Wolverine wanted a vacation in Alaska! 
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