The latest adventure of everyone's favorite X-Man is easily better than his last solo outing (not a tough job, admittedly), X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, but I also think it's the mutant's best overall outing in terms of story, cinematic value and action. That being said, there is still a great deal about the film that didn't connect with me, and there are a couple of elements in THE WOLVERINE that are downright terrible.
Taking on my personal favorite era of the original Wolverine comic books, THE WOLVERINE tackles Logan's (still Hugh Jackman) time in Japan, where he falls in love with Mariko (newcomer Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter of Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), one of the richest men in Japan, who happens to know Logan from their time together in the last days of World War II. Yashida sends one of his associates, the red-haired, future-seeing mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima), to bring Logan (voluntarily living in exile) to his deathbed so he can say good bye to his old friend. But it turns out Yashida really wants to syphon off Logan's healing factor so he can live longer. Knowing Logan doesn't enjoy the prospect of living forever, Yashida thinks Logan might go for this plan, but he refuses, and the old man dies, leaving his entire fortune and business to Mariko instead of her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who immediately tries to have his daughter killed so he can take over the business.
There are more twists and turns and double-crossings in THE WOLVERINE than I care to detail here. There's the guy that Mariko is arranged to marry, and there's the guy she actually loves, and neither one seems that important to the story. And then there's Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who might give the single worst performance in any X-MEN or superhero movie ever. And it would have been so easy to write the character right out of the film. Sure she doses Wolverine with something that inhibits his healing powers and makes him vulnerable, but there were ways to make another character do that. Sure, she's beautiful and looks great in her skin-tight costume, but I promise you will cringe every time she speaks.
I found it strange that the filmmakers opted to have Wolverine go without his healing powers for so much of the film. It reminded me of IRON MAN 3's decision to have Tony Stark out of the armor for so much of that movie. Sure Wolverine still had his adamantium claws and general animal rage, but after a few well placed cuts and bruises, the man becomes pretty weak and vulnerable.
From an aesthetic point of view, THE WOLVERINE is top notch. The beautifully filmed views of both modern and ancient Japanese locations were a great choice, and director James Mangold (COP LAND, WALK THE LINE, 3:10 TO YUMA) does a great job mixing the practical with the digital. There are some lasting images in this movie that floored me, including one of Wolverine charging through a small town to rescue Mariko and getting pierced with what looks like hundreds of arrows attached to ropes to hold him back. His claws are out, his body is pitched forward, but he's frozen in time and angry as hell. It's like an image right out of Kurosawa's THRONE OF BLOOD, and it's magnificent.
Another aspect of THE WOLVERINE I liked involved his dreams/nightmares, mostly involving Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), usually lying in bed with him, wishing he would join her in the afterworld (presumably she's tempting him to take his own life). It gives Wolverine the smallest sense of vulnerability and desperation, and helps us understand why living forever (or at least for a very long time) seem unappealing to him since it would keep him for reuniting with his beloved Jean. The device may not work for some, but it did for me.
My biggest overall issue with the movie was that there's simply too much story. Specifically, there are too many side stories, unnecessary right turns and about faces; it became exhausting after a while. Wolverine fighting ninjas is badass. Him trying to rescue Mariko, whom he's fallen for and vice versa, is great stuff, especially since she knows a little martial arts herself. But all of this nonsense about the company and Mariko's other men weighs down the film. I really love that, with the exception of Jackman and Janssen, most of the faces in the film will be unfamiliar to mainstream American audiences. It's a bold move, and it adds to the authenticity of the adventure.
The big final battle between Wolverine and the robotic, super-sized Silver Samurai is pretty solid as well, but since we know Wolverine shows up in the next X-MEN movie, that slightly undercuts our concern for his well being. Still, there are other things our hero can lose besides his life, as you'll see.
Side note: the film seems to set up Yukio as a possible sidekick for Wolverine, but I'm pretty sure she's not in the already-crowded X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, which is kind of a bummer because she's great. Oh well. There's certainly enough here to keep the die-hard X-MEN fans happy, as well as the folks who just want to see Jackman without his shirt on for great stretches of the film. As always, I'm eager to see where Logan takes us next (and don't leave right when the credits roll if you want to find out).