Full disclosure: I’m not a comic book geek, nor a superhero fan, and not even a particular fan of the popular Wolverine character. So maybe that’s what accounts for a rather tepid response to this film, an admittedly superior film to its predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine—not a particularly difficult feat. From the feedback I’m getting from my graphic novel-loving friends, this one hews more to the “true story” of the tormented hero, digging both into his heart and into a classic Wolverine tale.
This outing has Logan/Wolverine drawn out from his self-imposed exile in the wilderness into the bright colors, whirling action, and evil deeds of some Japanese criminals. Apart from specific memories the plot stirs in the hearts of the true fan, the story is the simple classic of a hero/superhero discovering his true calling and giving himself over to it. That arc is the foundation of the film and what holds it together. In between isolation and acceptance, there are a lot of fights, a good deal of personal agonizing, and some uncomfortable acting.
The one scene that will likely be referred to over all others is the fight atop a bullet train. It’s original, spellbinding, fresh, and as unbelievable as every other fight scene in a Marvel or DC Comics film. But it’s fun.
Of course the film stars Hugh Jacked-Man, who is given every opportunity to have his shirt off. (If I looked like that, though, I’d be writing this shirtless as well.) He’s nearly as buff as Henry Cavill in Man of Steel, and the physique is a special effect in and of itself. (Though a distracting one: sometimes you can only think of all the hard work it took to look like that, which takes you right out of the film every time.) I’m a fan of the man, and the camera does love him. But I’ve never quite been as much of a fan of the actor. Some are lauding the return to Wolverine’s dark gruffness here, but I never had the feeling that he completely nailed the part, in spite of this being his umpteenth outing as the character. Jackman can do action sequences well, though, and certainly knows how to wear the character’s heart either on his sleeve or far behind his eyes—an important ability in a film that highlights Wolverine’s emotional journey as much if not more than his call back into action.
It’s a violent film when you add it up, but director James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) keeps Logan’s slicing and dicing j-u-s-t out of camera range many times, keeping down the gore while still providing enough visual and aural information to let us know how much flesh is being punctured and slashed. While the action sequences (the train-top fight excepted) are not especially well constructed, this approach maintains the focus on Logan and keeps us both in the film and close to the character at the same time—a welcome change in an action film with this many deaths.
Once in Japan, though, there are two-and-a-half weaknesses that are as surprising as they are disappointing. There is an animé sprite come to life played by Rila Fukushima, a triangle-faced dyed-red-haired pixie who moves the action along. Unhappily, she is a first-time actress, and her performance outside of the action scenes is an awkward combination of mugging and OK if not always successful attempts at genuine acting. She’s a strong visual presence, however, and she adds color and energy. Also a first-time actress is the center of the intrigue as well as Logan’s possible love interest. She is played by Tao Okamoto, and her acting is weak and underplayed, but she has a solid screen presence that helps hold together the nearly overdone intrigue swirling about her. Lastly, there is a truly awful character played awfully: the Viper, played embarrassingly by Svetlana Khodchenkova, whose character doesn’t fit the film, and whose overdone “performance” is clichéd and laughable. She nearly ruins the film.
Then there is the third act, which turns into Wolverine Meets the Transformers. Don’t get me started on that. Just remember the earlier part of the film when you get to that point.
Because it’s an improvement over the previous Wolverine film, and because there is a return to the character’s roots, and because the Asian setting guarantees hundreds of millions in additional foreign box office, and because Jackman and Wolverine are a beloved combination, we likely haven’t seen the last of the films focused on this tortured superhero. In some ways, this is another international action production cobbled together with the requisite action sequences, foreign bad guys and comic-book characters come to life. But Jackman’s sympathetic portrayal, and the film’s steady emphasis on Logan’s hurting heart, serve to elevate and differentiate The Wolverine from the pack.
Note: There’s a preview of X-Men: Days of Future Past, which feature’s Wolverine’s next appearance, that comes in the middle of the end credits—don’t miss it.)