Movie Review: The Wolverine

Well this is by far the most movie reviews I’ve written in a single month.

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Starring:
Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima
Director:
James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma)
Rating: M
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So let’s talk about how terrible X-men Origins: Wolverine was. It told a largely made-up story that cobbled together as many mutants as possible (apparently X-Men: The Last Stand didn’t teach the producers any lessons about that mistake), though most of those mutants were far from fan favourites and the ones that were (e.g. Gambit, Deadpool) were either barely in the movie or horribly mishandled in more ways than one. The CGI was notoriously terrible, which hampered its overly ambitious action sequences and admittedly kinda cool early treatment of Wolverine’s near-agelessness. I gave it a pass when it was first released because it could never actually have been quite as terrible as people were making it out to be at the time, but my opinion of it has deteriorated rapidly over the years nonetheless. It has few redeeming qualities and I cannot bear to watch it again. I mean, just watch this Honest Trailer from ScreenJunkies. It sums things up pretty well.

Glad we got that out of the way, because The Wolverine is a much, much better film than that travesty. Let’s just ignore the fact that such a feat should not be difficult and read on to find out why.

The first and arguably most important thing The Wolverine does to distance itself from The Last Stand and Origins is its austere approach to the presence of mutants. There are only three in the entire movie, Wolverine himself included, and though this may come as a turn-off for people expecting some kind of quota for an X-Men movie, I can’t help but see the approach as anything other than refreshing after the gross over-saturation that pair of travesties suffered from. The clear-out of clutter allows the film to focus squarely on Hugh Jackman‘s now surely iconic depiction of Logan a.k.a Wolverine, who we find here wallowing in the wilderness following his killing of Jean Grey at the end of The Last Stand. Jackman is in his element here and his performance isn’t the only memorable one among the cast. Comic book fans may recognise the name Mariko Yashida, an important figure in Logan’s life who is portrayed with real earnestness by the rather unknown Tao Okamoto.

Famke Janssen returns to play a Jean-shaped apparition that haunts our favourite X-Man throughout, though she perhaps outstays her welcome after her first few appearances. Her constant reappearance cheapens her inclusion as a symbol of Logan’s regret and makes some of the protagonist’s moral choices in the film seem a bit iffier than they would have in their original comic book form. Still, the film doesn’t suffer all that much for it because she ties in appropriately with the greater emotional theme of the film – Wolverine’s struggle with his very slow aging process, which forces him to watch those he loves die around him one after another. When a katana-weilding emissary with a spookily complementary mutation (Rila Fukushima) shows up and takes him to Japan, where an old acquaintance offers to take away the burden of his nigh-immortality, some very interesting events get set in motion.

The second unique thing this superhero film has going for it is its Japanese setting. The “badass action enemy type” role that might have been filled by any number of mutants is instead filled by ninjas, yakuza thugs and people in samurai armour, If that isn’t a suitably awesome replacement I don’t know what is, even if the whole thing does smack of a collection of everything Western audiences think is cool about the land of the rising sun. It’s not all a Japanese tourism commercial though – There’s a pretty depressing depiction of the Nagasaki bombing and a nod to the country’s seedier modern side as well. The setting certainly makes for some very creatively staged action sequences, the best of which is a bullet train roof battle that must surely rank among the best action scenes we’ve seen in the last few months of blockbusters.

The most unfortunate thing about The Wolverine is its rather middling final reel. It certainly is disappointing to see a film that has relied so successfully on beautiful locales, believable characters, creative action choreography and the best kind of intimate storytelling devolve into a rather cliched double fight finale with a predictable and character-reversing “reveal” to boot. The film begins to lean heavier on fantastical CGI, which comes off as a little jarring when the preceding acts have used so little of it, and while there’s a cool use of the Chekhov’s Skill trope in there somewhere, the whole finale feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s not a disaster by any means, but it brings the movie down to the pack somewhat.

It lacks scale, it lacks mutants, and the presence of Jean Grey is slightly overextended, but none of these things really hurt what The Wolverine is going for, which is a more focused narrative than any X-Men film has told thus far. Director James Mangold delivers in spades on this front. Ultimately the film does not lack for drama, intrigue, humour or compelling action (how many recent superhero films can honestly tick all four of those boxes?) and if not for that disappointing final act it could well have been my favourite superhero movie of this blockbuster season. And yes, there is a bonus credits scene (DURING the credits, not after – don’t waste your time waiting like I did), and yes, it is amazingly cool.

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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Refreshingly focused narrative, good performances, creative action set pieces
Bad:
Noticeably weaker final third
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3.5 VsG !

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