Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Solid Snikt: "Wolverine" makes Jackman's solo count

The Wolverine (2013)
126 min., rated PG-13.

Origin-story fatigue in superhero movies has certainly set in, but when the "why the tiger has its stripes" setup is all out of the way, Hollywood shovels out the reboots, sequels, and spin-offs. After the first three "X-Men" pictures and the 2011 prequel "X-Men: First Class"—all of which had more than one character to get to—"The Wolverine" would seem to be ho-hum or a mere cash-grab, especially following 2009's weak-sauce "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." Fortunately, the titular Marvel Comics mutant finally gets his due, Hugh Jackman playing the clawed, mutton-chopped lone wolf for the sixth time, and it's not a case of diminishing returns.

Inspired by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's 1982 comic-book series, the script from screenwriters Mark Bomback (the "Total Recall" remake) and Scott Frank ("Marley & Me") chronologically picks up after 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand." When we first meet up with Logan (Jackman), he's living a hermit's life in the Yukon wilderness, experiencing nightmares that have left him reeling from having to kill his true love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and surviving a nuclear blast at a POW camp in Nagasaki. He lives on whiskey and avenges a bear's death on hunters, but doesn't want to be a soldier anymore. That is before being located by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a cherry-haired, sword-fighting Japanese mutant who can forsee people's deaths, on behalf of the officer he saved in Nagasaki. With Yukio serving as his bodyguard (not that he needs one), Logan travels to Japan to find the former officer-turned-billionaire inventor, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), on his death bed, hoping to repay him. Yashida offers Logan mortality—that way he can stop mourning and join Jean in the afterlife—but after samurai ninjas, yakuza, and Viper enter the picture, the Wolverine ends up protecting Yashida's heiress granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto).

Directed with efficiency by James Mangold (the underrated "Knight and Day"), "The Wolverine" is a good change of pace, more scaled-back and elegiac in approach, and makes for sure-footed production design with its Japan setting. Except for one exhilarating, awesomely staged fight on top of a bullet train moving at 300 mph being a cool high point, it's not high-octane all the time, so one should approach with few expectations and preconceived notions. And, so many superhero movies reek of desperation in trying to be a "thinking man's" revamp along the lines of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, most recently this summer's self-serious "Man of Steel"; this one, however, is a far less ponderous and somber beast. The final third succumbs to the kind of standard comic-book showdown fanboys will be gearing up for, with a silly, arbitrary "unmasking" in store, but it's still lively and fun in a contained sort of way, not to mention bereft of the de rigueur mindless destruction of an entire city or the planet. Also, it's about time some blood is shed in a PG-13 movie.

Jackman has the role of Logan/Wolverine down to a science and commits 100%, not only physically but emotionally as well. He grunts and flexes his ripped muscles, while retracting his claws, and taps into the character's brooding and painful emotional baggage. We get to see what makes Logan so tormented and conflicted, especially when he is temporarily robbed of his self-healing powers and has the choice to trade out his immortality. Holding their own against the formidable Jackman is an international cast, including models Fukushima, a sweet, kick-ass addition as the anime-influenced Mariko, and Okamoto, who has an equal grace and toughness about her as Mariko. Though she ends up being a more auxiliary villain, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a nurse/toxicologist with a mutant's poison tongue, reminds too much of Uma Thurman's Poison Ivy in the 1997 fiasco "Batman & Robin" and not in a good way. Russian actress Khodchenkova is seductive, slinking around in campy get-ups, but she screams model rather than menacing villainess.

It's pleasing to find a superhero movie with stand-alone value. Sure, you should wait for the obligatory cherry on top of a mid-end credits stinger (which will elate fanboys and get them talking), but the film itself is not a false start or mere set-up for 2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past." "The Wolverine" might not be nearly as emotionally engaging as any of the entries in the "X-Men" canon, but it's leaps and bounds better than Wolverine's previous solo adventure, plus it's perfectly entertaining.


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