Hugh Jackman is back as the titular clawed menace, this time in a story lifted from a seminal 1980’s comic run and put together by James Mangold, helmer of the enjoyable 3:10 to Yuma. Audiences know they can count on Jackman’s charisma, but will a new crew and source material get old knife hands far enough from the screechy, cartoony Origins: Wolverine movie? That film derailed Fox’s franchise plans and led to a four year X-men moratorium. This time around, thanks to some choice omissions and a retooling of the dramatic stakes, The Wolverine ends up an entertaining diversion. Still, the setting and action is just a notch above pulp (although occasionally inspired), so your enjoyment of The Wolverine will probably be exactly correlated to your affection for the character.
This time Wolvie is on his own in Japan, leaving out most of the world’s mutants and problems. After years of self-imposed isolation, Jackman is tracked down by the spunky warrior Yukio, who compels him follow a trail left in his past straight into the intrigue of a wealthy Japanese family. One of the strengths of the comic book format is how quickly it can leap between genres, and with The Wolverine they’ve finally made a super hero movie that eschews bombast for noir. The heart of this story is still Jackman and his struggles with his past, but the plot is entirely based on a mystery that is almost completely independent of him. The movie actually makes room for a slow start, letting Wolverine breath before the inevitable shankings. With the exception of a misused fellow mutant, the action is driven by the motivations of a family that happens to have ties to mafia thugs, ninjas, and cutting edge technology. Okay, it’s still a comic book movie but Jackman is the next best thing to Sam Spade here, grimacing his way through the case. Inbetween slashing and katanas, his personal baggage is literalized by conversations with the euthanized Jean Grey. It doesn’t shade Wolverine in any novel ways but it thematically relates his personal struggle to the machinations of the larger story quite nicely. Unfortunately everyone else in the movie is largely disposable as a character. Most of the Japanese actors register as subtle rather than over the top, but the pace doesn’t find time for exploring their motivations.
Instead, the movie busies itself with finding novel ways to set up the action. What could be new for the helicopter chopping Canadian who’s dramatically lived through two different bullets to the noggin? In keeping with the noir spirit, this time the action has been toned down to a more realistic and personal style. Accordingly, Wolverine’s healing power has been zapped to make this possible. While still superhuman, bullets to the body now cause time to dilate due to stopping power, and the defacto suicide charges have been transformed into jujutsu dodging and creative environment usage. Jackman again avoids weapons, preferring the up close and personal style of swiping, stabbing, and leaping. Similarly the Japanese setting gives some excuse for more stylized fodder. Katana’s are the next best thing to knives coming out of your hands, and they prove similarly dangerous. One of the best scenes follows a cross city chase shadowed by a ninja who calmly and accurately kills from the roof tops with a bow. It’s not a huge leap for all mankind, but the action scenes are well filmed and paced with a sense of place and rules and enough of the afore mentioned cultural twists that it stands out against the beige armies of dudes with guns that populate most action movies.
The Wolverine doesn’t transcend its background material but it is one of the first movies to take advantage of comic book’s penchant for transubstantiating characters into bizarre situations. Adopting a noir edge, this film is also extremely violent, including impromptu surgery and multiple stab wounds. It’s up to you to decide if that’s a good thing, but in the same way you probably already can measure your own anticipation for violence, you likely can predict how you’ll feel about the Wolverine. It’s a well-made power fantasy that has a couple ideas and obliterates its prequel, but Jackman’s grimace is immune to entropy and you know right where he’ll be in the end; on top of the heap. If these elements seem pleasing, then this four day three night stay in exotic Tokyo adjacent may be just what you’re looking for, although there are no refunds in case of stabbing/guttural screaming.