Even if it doesn’t entirely clear away the stench of its misbegotten predecessor, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, this latest adventure of grizzled mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman) feels like a return to form for the oft-erratic “X-Men” series. To wipe the slate clean, Jackman and director James Mangold (Knight and Day; Girl, Interrupted) have teamed up to bring out the claws once again in The Wolverine. While it’s definitely a more entertaining and far deeper film than the last Wolverine outing, it still falls short of the top tier of Marvel tentpoles like Iron Man and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
Based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s much-loved 1982 comic-book arc, The Wolverine is an existential (and at times soddenly heavy) story about our razor-taloned hero grappling with the burden of immortality and loss. But before we wade into that therapy session, the film opens with a harrowing sequence set, like most of the film, in Japan. It’s WWII, and Jackman’s Logan is imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp in Nagasaki as B-29s fly overhead to deliver the atomic bomb. During the blast he saves one of his captors, a soldier named Yashida, who, during the explosion, learns of Wolverine’s invincibility and ability to heal his own wounds.
Decades later, Logan, who hasn’t aged a day, has renounced violence and lives as a hermit bonding with grizzlies in the Yukon. There, he’s tracked down by a punky, red-haired Japanese girl named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who informs him that the man he saved back in the prison camp is now a powerful industrialist on his deathbed. He’s requesting Logan’s presence to thank him and settle the karmic debt that he believes he owes him.
Logan heads to Japan to pay his respects and discovers not only that the dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) wants to steal the secret to Logan’s immortality, but also that he has a granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who’s about to inherit his fortune and is in need of Logan’s unique brand of badass protection. Why Logan complies is never really explained, perhaps because of justice? Regardless, Logan and Mariko are on the run from a lethal posse of tattooed Yakuza and some other samurai-style baddies straight out of the Kill Bill playbook, including Yashida’s femme fatale blonde nurse (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who possesses certain viper-y gifts of her own. Although Logan doesn’t even speak one lick of Japanese in any of the scenes.
As Logan and his charge hit the road, sparks fly, ninjas attack, and Wolverine begins to experience something he never has before — the actual fear of death. You get to see how he’s both physically and emotionally vulnerable. In other words, human. All of this makes for a Wolverine tale that’s more loaded with psychological questions (his immortality is seen as a curse) and makes the haunted character more interesting. Still, that’s no excuse for the film’s gauzy dream sequences with Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey haunting him from the beyond.
Still, in the final wash, The Wolverine provides a compelling look into a beloved screen character and offers up enough excitement to merit its existence. That said, it’s worth pointing out two things that The Wolverine gets right (aside from Jackman’s always excellent, strong-and-silent-type performance as Logan). The first is an action sequence that occurs mid-way in the film, when Wolverine is being pursued on top of a bullet train. By now, we’ve all seen so many beat-downs atop locomotives that they’ve become numbingly similar. But the one in The Wolverine is so frantic and adrenalized (not to mention the only part of the film that takes advantage of 3-D) that the familiar becomes new again. The film also sticks the landing on a brief teaser scene after the end credits that hints at future developments in the X-Men universe. I won’t spoil the pleasure of what happens. But you have to hand it to Marvel for managing to leave audiences breathless in anticipation of a sequel after making them sit through two-plus hours of merely satisfactory storytelling.