Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Movie Review: Did Wolverine Get His Claws Back?

Following the dismal X-Men: The Last Stand and the facepalm-worthy X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it’s easy to forget that the film franchise starring Xavier’s gifted youngsters is the reason why superheroes have become summer box-office mainstays. Had Bryan Singer’s X-Men tanked in 2000, we wouldn’t have seen Spider-Man two years later, nor would Marvel Studios had the opportunity to bring Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the rest of The Avengers to the silver screen. The last movie memory of Batman might have involved molded rubber nipples.

Over 13 years, we’ve seen the X-Men franchise soar (with Singer’s outstanding X2: X-Men United), plummet (Brett Rattner’s maligned third film), bump its head (X-Men Origins) and regain its footing (Matthew Vaughn’s refreshing X-Men: First Class). That spotty track record is likely why this summer’s The Wolverine arrived with far less geek fanfare than other recent superhero flicks like Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel.

The experience no doubt enhanced by the all-powerful force known as lowered expectations, I’m happy to say that The Wolverine lives up to the standard of the Singer entries in the series, and is certainly the best film that includes a computer-animated urinating bear in the first act. I wonder if that’ll be an Oscars category this year.

Loosely (and I do mean loosely) based on the iconic Wolverine mini-series by Chris Claremont and Frank MIller, The Wolverine catches us up with Logan (the always game Hugh Jackman), who is haunted by the memory of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the woman he loved and was forced to kill at the end of The Last Stand. Leaving the X-Men team and living a solitary life in the woods, Logan is found by pint-sized ass-kicker Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who beckons the cantankerous clawed Canadian to Tokyo to visit the bedside of dying businessman Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi). You see, years ago in a Japanese POW camp near Nagasaki, Logan saved young Yashida from the infamous nuclear explosion. Yashida has a final request for Logan, which might in turn give the invincible warrior the peace he has sought for many lifetimes.

A trip to The Land of the Rising Son puts Logan in the middle of a sinister plot by the Yakuza to eliminate Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Ever the hero, Logan takes it upon himself to protect her, because he’s the best at what he does, but … well, you know the rest.

In an apologetic departure from the type of lifeless filmmaking that made X-Men Origins: Wolverine a frustrating mess, director James Mangold brings to life an excellent examination of Logan as a character, giving vulnerability and pathos to a superhero that could become boring in the wrong hands (for example, those attached to the wrists of X-Men Origins director Gavin Hood). We come for the slicing and dicing, sure. But it’s also important for us to feel the pain of a soldier who, thanks to his mutant healing ability, has outlived everyone he cares about. Between energetic fight sequences — including an exhilarating battle atop a speeding bullet train — Mangold isn’t afraid of slowing things down to explore Logan’s human side, pulled closer to the surface by a burgeoning relationship with Mariko.

If The Wolverine is missing anything, it’s compelling villains. Aside from The Silver Samurai, a character that is more or less shoehorned into the final act, we get The Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a venomous, serpentine mutant with a set of powers that seems to expand whenever the story demands it. There’s also a slew of forgettable evil businessmen and ninjas, whose sole purpose seems to be getting dispatched by Wolverine in a suitably PG-13 manner. Granted, this movie demands faceless claw fodder, but an intriguing main antagonist would have made the third act far more focused.

In the end, The Wolverine is a worthy follow-up to X-Men: First Class, and gives fans a reason to remain hopeful for next summer’s Days of Future Past. Oh, and speaking of that upcoming X-Men sequel, be sure to stick around through the credits, bub.