He's Got An Idea Or Three In That Pointy Head Of His

NPR | July 30, 2013 7:33 a.m.

Contributed By:

Ian Buckwalter

Wait, where are the falling buildings? Why is it that life on earth as we know it isn’t in peril? Doesn’t director James Mangold know that Summer 2013 is all-apocalypse all the time when it comes to blockbusters?

Yet here’s The Wolverine, the sixth film in the X-Men franchise, in which only a handful of the good guys are ever in any real danger, and if evil wins out … well, it would be spoiling things to give too many details, so suffice it to say that if evil wins the day, the only media outlets covering it would be the likes of the Financial Times.

The Wolverine is that rare (and growing rarer) breed, the intimate super-hero movie, a story that’s all about isolating our genetically mutated hero — Hugh Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine — and making him think and talk about his feelings. Sure, he gets to punch faces and use those adamantium claws to slash some jugulars (remarkably bloodlessly — this is PG-13 jugular-slashing), but he doesn’t feel too great about it.

He’s got some heavy past trauma he’s trying to work through – if you’ve forgotten what happened at the end of 2006’s much-maligned X-Men: The Last Stand, you may want to brush up, as Mangold doesn’t bother with recapping. Logan is a loner now, generally more at home in a caveside camp communing with grizzlies. Though when Mariko (Tao Okamoto), an attractive Japanese heiress and granddaughter of an old friend, is in danger, he can be pretty comfy in a cozy Japanese bayside cottage learning the customary way to eat with chopsticks.

I’d like to credit Mangold, along with writers Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank for their good intentions; the smaller scope and lighter tone of their film is a tonic after bloated doom and gloom of Man of Steel. Prominent roles for women — as strong partners, as warriors and as villains, not just as damsels in distress, also make for a nice change of pace.

And in setting most of the film in Japan — to which Logan has been summoned by that old friend (Will Yun Lee), who he saved from certain death at Nagasaki in 1945 — Mangold opens the door to influences from martial arts cinema to yakuza films to Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express.

Yet none of those great ideas are particularly well executed. The film’s intimate psychological explorations of what it means to be invincible are probably its strongest aspects, as Logan, much like Kal-El in 1980’s Superman II, loses his most important powers — the mutation, technically, that allows him to heal immediately from even the most gruesome injuries — and is there by rendered something closer to human.

But the device is hampered somewhat by its inconsistent, ill-defined and suspiciously convenient application. It’s never clear just how “mortal” Logan has become; he still seems pretty resilient when it counts, and some wounds, notably those at his knuckles where his claws extend, heal immediately even as bullet holes continue to bleed.

Mariko and her adoptive sister Yukio (Rila Fukushima) are strong female presences — Mariko does need some saving, but she also doesn’t let Logan get away with his emotionally scarred little-boy routine. Yukio, meanwhile, is very much presented as Logan’s warrior equal, and you can count on her to become an X-Men franchise regular.

But the female villain, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) is flimsier than the slinky dress she wears through most of the climactic battle. She’s barely drawn well enough to be a tertiary henchman, let alone something close to the movie’s archvillain.

Most disappointingly, the Japanese-cinema influences are never really fully explored. While reference is made to Logan’s similarity to a ronin, a samurai without a master, the film never really plays on the moody isolation suggested by that designation. The martial-arts sequences, meanwhile, are more comprehensible than is the norm for modern action, but they’re mostly forgettable apart from a truly breathtaking fight atop a speeding bullet train.

That’s pretty much what we get with The Wolverine: a handful of bold ideas brought down by the need to regress to a blander, more box-office-friendly middle ground. I’d like to see what a real Wolverine-as-samurai film looks like, or a superhero’s tragic romance, or even just his struggle with the one thing he lacks: mortality. Instead, The Wolverinepays lip service to its more intriguing notions before winding things up with a chaotic finale that feels just like the bigger, faster, crazier end of every other comic-book movie — only, thankfully, with less city-wide demolition.

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