THE WOLVERINE is an almost-great superhero movie, with many factors involved. Hugh Jackman really pushes himself here, giving what is probably his most nuanced, best performance as Logan. The script (for at least the first two acts) is strong, even when it gets a bit convoluted, and there are mostly real characters here instead of simple amalgams or plot devices. James Mangold has a nice sense of restraint (again, during the first two acts), letting scenes breathe. Mangold also lets the story and the acting take precedence over the loud booming that tends to dominate movies like this, but Mangold also doesn’t forget to make genuinely fun and playful action sequences that entertain as well as push the story forward.
All of that makes THE WOLVERINE well worth seeing. But there are undeniable problems in the third act, where James Mangold and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Scot Frank, and Christopher McQuarrie eschew the quiet, gritty tone set beforehand in favor of more bombastic, traditional summer CGI fare. It’s not a movie killer. THE WOLVERINE shares the same problems as X-MEN: FIRST CLASS; both movies set up the stakes delicately and efficiently, only to lose focus in their endgames. But the movies are still largely successful. I wish Mangold and the screenwriters had more confidence in the material to figure out a way to give us a compelling ending without resorting to cliché, because the story of Logan in Japan has always been a fan favorite. Even though there are substantial changes to the original comic story, THE WOLVERINE still works.
The “superhero eager to give up his powers” is a common trope in this genre, and it’s certainly present here, but I liked how film sets it up; Wolverine is tired of his existence, and when he’s offered a chance to relieve himself of his healing burden by Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), he refuses. But events spiral out of control, and Logan finds himself involved with yakuza, corporate politics, the suppression of his healing factor, and beautiful Mariko (Tao Okamoto) who needs his help.
Hugh Jackman could play Wolverine in his sleep at this point, but it’s still a bit surprising and even touching how much Jackman respects and loves the character. So many actors who play iconic roles in their career seem eager to walk away from those parts that made them famous, but Jackman is having none of that. Even more, he keeps finding aspects of the character to explore; Jackman isn’t content to just grimace and bare the claws. That’s too rare these days. I think more actors should take pages out of Jackman’s book in regards to playing superhero characters – trusting the source material, and trusting the fans as well. Jackman has always been very friendly in that regard. Along with Robert Downey Jr., Jackman seems to get this genre more than most.
James Mangold also seems to transition well between the somber nature of the material and the exciting action scenes. He’s also not afraid to have fun, even during Wolverine’s hack-and-slash moments. One action sequence on a bullet train is funny and innovative and yet doesn’t compromise anything about Logan’s character. I must admit to wanting more to a climactic ninja battle, something fans have wanted to see since Jackman first played the character. But I admire Mangold taking pause for character moments, especially between Logan and Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who have a nice give-and-take together. In his dreams, Logan also can’t seem to stop seeing Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and their interactions also inform Jackman’s performance.
The largely Japanese cast also does good work, especially Rila Fukushima’s Yukio, a prescient mutant who can also carry her own in a fight. Hal Yamanouchi as the aged Yashida, seeking one last favor from Logan, is also quite good, until the movie asks him to go to an unlikely place. I didn’t have much use for Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper, who is more of a plot point than a character. But for the most part the performances mesh well with Jackman’s, and the story is compelling enough to keep audiences interested in them.
Where the movie stumbles is at the climax; not to spoil, but it doesn’t serve the movie very well, going towards an obvious big action sequence instead what should probably have been more evenly paced and quieter. A little bit of Kurosawa restraint would have worked wonders here, and I’m certain fans would have embraced that fully. Wolverine has always felt like a modern day samurai, and I would have liked to have seen a more measured ending than the overblown spectacle that we got. But again, this doesn’t kill the movie. For 80% of its running time, THE WOLVERINE is terrific. It just doesn’t stick the landing. It’s unfortunate, but not a dealbreaker.
A word or two, however, about the violence. I know these are money-making engines for the studio. And yet I couldn’t help but be bothered by the brutality of the action sequences. People are slashed, shot, stabbed, in all manner of horrific ways, yet barely a drop of blood is shed. It seems irresponsible to show that much violence with so little repercussions. I would have favored an R rating for THE WOLVERINE, if for nothing else allowing the filmmakers to not be restrained in that regard. The material certainly suggested a more mature rating, and I think fans would have appreciated that Fox allowed THE WOLVERINE to go places that most movies of this genre do not go. But again, there’s a bottom line that has to be met, and while I’m sure there will be many families that see THE WOLVERINE this weekend, a word of warning should be stated – THE WOLVERINE is PG-13, but only on the strictest of calculations. It’s a very violent movie and should have been treated as such, instead of made for the Happy Meal set. I also have the distinct feeling that many women will enjoy THE WOLVERINE – Hugh Jackman rarely has a full shirt on and there may be a few guys in the audience sucking in their gut a bit when they leave with their dates at the end of the movie.
There’s a mid-credits scene in THE WOLVERINE that sets the stage nicely for X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, and while THE WOLVERINE was already a very good movie, the mid-credits scene makes everything work well in the context of the X-Men Movie Universe. I like where this franchise is going – with FIRST CLASS and now THE WOLVERINE this series is back on track. I hope Hugh Jackman figures out a way to not age himself out of this ageless character, because at this point I can’t imagine anyone with the charisma, charm, and grit to play this part. For now, though, I look forward to wherever Jackman takes Wolverine next. THE WOLVERINE is not without problems, but it’s still a worthwhile superhero movie, and for the most part, it hits what it aims for.