If you like nothing else about it, you should at least be impressed with The Wolverine’s release date. At this point in the summer, most of us are flat-out sick of cookie-cutter summer blockbusters with the same resume: immeasurably high body counts, indestructible heroes, and half-hearted political commentary. If you feel this way, consider The Wolverine your antidote. A small, self-contained character piece with thoughtful action sequences, The Wolverine might not be the best superhero movie this summer. But given what has come before, it sure feels like it.
The opening segment is a thrilling slice of historical fiction. Logan (Hugh Jackman) is being held prisoner at a POW camp in Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. Moments after the bomb drops, he saves the life of Harada, a young Japanese officer, by protecting him from the blast with his indestructible body. Years later, Harada sends for Logan, now living a simple life of non-violence in the Pacific Northwest, with a mysterious request, and soon the drifter superhero is drawn into a plot involving samurais, the Yakuza (Japanese mafia), and a beautiful mutant villain named The Viper.
The Wolverine is a movie of mixed genres, and your enjoyment of it will depend to some degree on whether you are a fan of samurai movies. By design, it is a mostly humorless affair, with a lot of serious talk about honor and duty. This is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, although it does ensure a robust performance in the all-important Asian market. Still, it’s so refreshing to see a superhero movie that explores a genre other than sci-fi and diverges from the formula in such significant ways.
Director James Mangold (Cop Land, Walk the Line) demonstrates a commitment to character that is both admirable and effective. The Wolverine spends forty-five minutes or so getting to know Logan before we even get to the first action, a thrilling sequence set at a public funeral. To make this work, you need a strong, quiet confidence in the lead actor, and Jackman eases into the character like a comfortable coat. Unlike most superheroes now, Jackman owns this role completely; it’s impossible to see another actor as Wolverine, and his confidence and comfort allow him to forego big character strokes and let the character’s penetrating stare and impressive physicality speak for themselves.
Still, if you come for the claws, you won’t be disappointed. Another divergence from the typical summer movie formula, most of the action scenes in The Wolverine involve hand-to-hand combat (or at least claw-to-sword). Each of these scenes is well-staged, competently shot, and visually inventive. For example, The fight-on-a-moving train has been done to death in the movies (look to this summer’s The Lone Ranger for just one example), but Mangold, with just a little thought and a desire for originality, creates the summer’s most inventive fight scene atop a speeding bullet train.
Unfortunately, that personal touch does not extend to any of the supporting characters. The villains are largely one-note, defined only by greed and lack of honor. After the attack at the funeral, Logan ends up becoming a bodyguard to Mariko, Harada’s granddaughter, who stands to take over his company upon the old man’s death. Mariko is beautiful and fragile (a little too much of a geisha fantasy), but we are given little window into her soul. A big problem is that the plot, which could have provided some higher stakes for these characters, is mostly indecipherable. Harada has gotten mixed up in a plot with the Yakuza, as well as the Minister of Defense, but I’ll be damned if I could follow much of it.
It’s a serious and almost fatal flaw for a movie like this. It’s admirable to forego the trap of choosing spectacle over story, but to do that, you have to nail the story. Hugh Jackman’s well-honed portrayal of the iconic superhero will be enough to keep your interest, but it’s a shame that they couldn’t get the pieces around him to fit. As it stands The Wolverine is a surprising, original superhero movie that falls significantly short of greatness, although we should all applaud it if we want to see Hollywood continue to take a chance every now and then.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue