“Somehow the first Wolverine movie ended up looking like the fourth X-Men — just with different characters. I left unsure if we’d achieved our goal, which was to make sure people understood my character… fingers crossed that we’ve done it this time.” — Hugh Jackman
My eyes rolled clear to the back of my head when I first read that. By the time X-Men Origins: Wolverine came out, we already had a trilogy of X-Men films that had Jackman’s character front and center. X-Men — quite possibly the most expansive franchise in all of comic book history — had film adaptations that were specifically tailored to Wolverine and Jackman’s portrayal of him. And of course, that was all before Fox brought us an origin story for Logan that was neither wanted nor needed.
And Jackman thinks he needs a fifth movie to make sure we adequately understand the character? Bullshit. What else could he possibly do with the character that we haven’t seen before?
Quite a lot, as it turns out.
The Wolverine picks up after the events of X3, when Logan is haunted by nightmares of the late Jean Grey (Famke Janssen once again). Overcome by guilt and heartbreak, Logan has completely withdrawn from the world to live as an old hermit of some unnamed forest. Sure, Logan was an uncivilized brute when we first met him way back in X-Men (Was that really thirteen years ago? Wow.), but this is something else.
From the outset, the movie explicitly portrays Wolverine as an animal. Given the nature of his powers and his feral personality, it was very intriguing to see Jackman play Logan as a full-on beast. Even better, Logan’s heartbroken and isolated status bring the theme of immortality into play. Wolverine is a character who wishes for death (not that he’d ever admit it), yet his powers make it hard to impossible for him to die. This is a fascinating angle to the character, especially the way Jackman plays it.
Anyway, the plot really gets underway with the arrival of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an all-around badass hired to find Wolverine. Her employer is Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), a WWII veteran who was saved by Logan when Nagasaki went nuclear. Now a multi-billionaire on his deathbed, Yashida claims that Logan’s healing factor can be transferred and asks for the procedure to be carried out. Yashida gets to keep on living, Logan can start on his path to the grave, everybody wins.
The film’s Japanese setting merits further discussion. For one thing, the culture’s emphasis on decorum clashes against Logan’s wild demeanor in a nicely comedic way. Even so, the Japanese have a concept of honor that strikes a chord with our anti-hero. One character even goes so far as to call Logan a ronin, comparing him to a warrior without a master. Last but not least, the Japanese setting brings a sense of scale to the film while granting it a unique sort of flavor to set it apart from most other superhero movies. Kudos, by the way, are due to Marco Beltrami and his suitably ethnic score.
Anyway, things go sideways when the Yakuza, the Japanese government, Yashida’s own company, and Ditko knows who else all start to clash. Logan is forced to go on the run with Yashida’s granddaughter (Mariko, played by Tao Okamoto), though he’s surprised to find that his healing powers are somehow fading. Yes, his adamantium skeleton is still intact, and his healing is still good enough to enable the use of his claws, but bruises and bullet wounds are much more painful and slower to mend.
The point being that Wolverine can now be hurt. It might even be possible to kill him, especially since we’ve got a villain who specializes in poisons (more on her later). This exposes even more new facets of the character, and it also makes the fight scenes so much more novel and entertaining. The filmmakers put an impressive amount of effort into crafting situations that challenge an unkillable man, and that’s no small feat.
However, I do have one small nitpick: The film plays it up as a huge shock that Wolverine can be stripped of his healing powers. You’d think that the entire world had completely forgotten the “mutant cure” that was invented in X3. It isn’t really such a new concept as everyone makes it out to be in this film. And while I’m on the subject of continuity hiccups, there’s one point when the ghost of Jean tells Logan that she’s lonely in the afterlife. This begs the question of where Cyclops is, since he should be dead right along with her. But I digress.
The bottom line is that Jackman continues to give 100 percent in the portrayal of his signature role. In his action scenes, in his contemplative scenes, and also while cracking wise, Wolverine is a blast to watch from start to finish.
The other cast standout is Rila Fukushima, whose rapier wit and incredible fighting skills make her a worthy ally for Wolverine. Though Fukushima tends to falter in her more dramatic scenes, she’s still a badass who’s entertaining to watch.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast fails to match that caliber.
We should probably start with Mariko, a dumbass in distress if there ever was one. Aside from a couple of moments here and there, this character would completely fail the treasure test. If she was left to her own devices, the movie would probably have been over in 45 minutes. Yet Wolverine feels compelled to save her because I have no idea why. Jackman and Tao Okamoto both play their characters very well, and the actors’ natural chemistry is enough to make the relationship watchable, but the romance arc feels plot-motivated rather than character-motivated. Since the Wolverine/Mariko romance is a key driving force of the narrative, that’s a rather big problem.
Then we’ve got the supporting cast. The villains consist of Viper (a poisonous mutant played by Svetlana Khodchenkova), Yashida’s son (Shingen, played by Hiroyuki Sanada) and Mariko’s betrothed (Chief of Justice Noburo, played by Brian Tee). There’s also Harada (Will Yun Lee), who seems to be playing both sides. There are some other characters, but I won’t spoil them here.
The salient point is that all of these supporting characters have their own plots and agendas. Needless to say, when national politics, global organizations, and the key to immortality are all on the table, plots are going to get very convoluted very quickly. The convoluted plots require hasty exposition dumps, the underhanded tactics require steadfast refusals to explain what’s going on, and I’m not sure which approach is worse here. Even after watching this movie, I still couldn’t tell you what half the characters were trying to do or why.
More importantly, the villains spend most of their time manipulating and killing each other. As a result, none of the characters are adequately developed as a true opponent for Wolverine. This comes back to bite the movie in a big way when the third act rolls around. The climax is supposed to be the moment when everything comes together and the villain shows what they can really do, except that the Big Bad is something that was only barely established in advance and everyone else has been taken out in varying degrees of anticlimactic. It isn’t nearly as satisfying to watch Wolverine defeat the bad guys when he got so much help in the process, that’s really what I’m trying to say.
On a different note, it bears mentioning that the editing is a little wonky. The continuity is visibly off in places, and there’s some obvious ADR going on. This film was clearly tampered with, most likely to keep the runtime down to two hours and the rating down to a PG-13.
With all of that said, it bears repeating that this movie is fun. When Jackman is onscreen and having a great time as Wolverine, it’s fun. When he’s acting off of Fukushima and the two are fighting beside each other, it’s fun. Even when Khodchenkova is camping it up as a sultry femme fatale, it’s fun to watch.
Last but not least, you’ll want to stay at least halfway through the credits. Just trust me on this. It got me even more hyped for the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past than I already was.
Though The Wolverine is highly flawed, I can still give it a recommendation. The movie brings a lot of solid action while exploring the character of Wolverine in some very creative and intriguing ways. The novel Japanese setting is another plus. I only wish that the screenplay had gone through another couple of drafts to streamline the plot and fill some holes. It’s a good film, but it so very easily could have been a great one.
If you want a CGI blockbuster for a good action-packed time at the movies… well, go see Pacific Rim. But if that film is too noisy and brainless for your taste, then this one should be right up your alley.