Following on from the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, The Wolverine opens with our titular hero remembering past glories as he rescues a young Japanese officer from the US attack on Nagasaki. This dream sequence is beautifully shot with the approach of the B-29s with their deadly payload and the response of the troops on the ground being a poised juxtaposition of menacing grace and frantic calm. Immediately the audience is on-board with this movie and we can tell we are in for a much more artistic portrayal of the superhero story than we have seen before. And then the next scene goes and ruins that initial goodwill by featuring a sullen, brooding Logan (does that guy do nothing else) and the worst looking CGI creature that has ever graced our cinema screens. With his memories of the death of Jean Grey and his own part in that haunting him Logan vows a life of peace, until a mysterious young Japanese girl, with a penchant for swordplay, offers him a chance to say goodbye to an old friend.”
Now the Wolverine is back in Japan and we are off to the races, but what promises to be the adventure of a lost Samurai in a strange new world descends into a by-the-numbers hostage/ransom/ultimate-betrayal story as Mariko, the granddaughter of Logan’s old friend and industrialist Yashida, the man whose life he saved all those years ago in Nagasaki, is forced to flee a Yakuza attack on her grandfather’s funeral. Granted this does give us two of the best action sequences in the film, but it also serves to streamline the plot in a predictable way and to allow western cliches of Japanese society to enter what was, up to that point, a fresh look at a different culture. In an attempt to keep things more interesting from the audience the true intent of the villain, and indeed who the villain might be is teased out, but in order to make this work the audience needs to have invested itself in the Logan/Mariko relationship.
Tao Okamoto is a very beautiful girl, and her performance is a wonderful example of outward peace and delicateness wrapped around a iron-strong inner core, but her relationship with Logan never feels real. He’s too fixated on the past, and she with the hero from the stories her grandfather told her as a child. In fact some of the childlike aspects of Mariko’s character make the Logan relationship feel inherently wrong. Hugh Jackman is very comfortable in the skin of Logan, and here he gets to do a lot more with the man behind the adamantium claws than in the really rather poor X-Men Origin: Wolverine. His workout regime for this film has left him more ripped than in any other installment and that feels wrong considering that the film starts with Logan a recluse and hiding his fighter nature. Still he does look impressive in the action sequences so continuity can fall by the wayside. Aside from Jackman, the only returning X-Men character is Jean Grey, again played by Famke Janssen. She appears to Logan in dream sequences and has little to do except act ethereal and look attractive in a nighty. She’s really wasted. Setting the film in Japan gives rise to a host of new characters, and new actors to play them. The best of these is Rila Fukushima as Yukio, Yashida’s surrogate granddaughter and best friend of Mariko. Yukio is a strong and independent woman who can hold her own in fights, and Fukushima revels in this role. Svetlana Khodchenkova does not fare as well, as her character is given no real back story and no good lines to sink her teeth into. The same is true of Will Yun Lee, whose Harada looks like he was a much more interesting character in an earlier draft. Hiroyuki Sanada’s Shingen and Brian Tees’s Noburo are almost completely interchangeable, with the latter serving little purpose save as exposition. That leaves Hal Yamanouchi, a fine actor who gives a measured performance despite the script attempting to turn him into Lex Luthor.
There’s a shadow that hangs large over this film in the shape of Darren Aronofsky, the director long-linked with bringing this story to the screen. James Mangold is a fine director, but Aronofsky is famed for an artist’s approach to the medium of film, and one cannot help but wonder what his version of this movie might have been. Maybe he could have taken the writers aside and told them that the third act descends into chaos, maybe there would have been less fight-scenes and it would have been more sedate, maybe it would… There’s a lot of maybes, none of which can ever be answered, but what we can judge is what is in front of us and what it is is flawed. Not bad, just flawed. The action sequences look great, particularly the initial Yakuza assault and the train sequence. The final battle is much more generic action-movie, but still has a tangible weight and sense of jeopardy. Japan is beautifully framed by Ross Emery, particularly the snow-covered village of Yashida’s birth, which looks like a 16th century painting come to life. Marco Beltrami’s score is also rather good, with a dark tone that is rooted in Japanese sounds, and which ramps up nicely as the action does likewise. However the dream sequences, the formulaic plot, the underwritten characters and the pacing stop this reaching the heights of X-Men or X2.
Overall The Wolverine is a welcome addition to the X-Men film universe, and a refreshing palate cleanser after the dismal X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film that overreaches as its attempts to be more than a superhero film are undermined by a derivative script. The film showcases Hugh Jackman’s extraordinary physical presence, as well as allowing him to delve further into the psyche of the wounded warrior, and for that alone it is worth a watch. Oh and please stick around through the end credits…you won’t want to miss what happens!