2013, 126mins, 12
Director: James Mangold
Writer (s): Scott Frank, Mark Bomback
Cast includes: Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Rila Fukushima, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova
UK Release Date: 26th July 2013
Remember 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”? Most fans certainly try not to; the initial exploration into one of Marvel’s most recognisable faces was greeted with riotous disdain. It was a problematic feature for sure, scuppered by a sub-par script and a series of backroom production disputes that left poor Gavin Hood in the directorial lurch. Fox weren’t content to let this franchise character rot on a rock of perpetual mediocrity however, resuscitating the spiky haired mutant and Hugh Jackman simultaneously in the hope of a more satisfactory outcome. “The Wolverine” certainly seems to have enjoyed a smoother journey to the big screen than its predecessor, Jackman in particular vocally addressing the upbeat contrast in creative process for the press. Adopting a Japanese setting also encouraged a promisingly international change for the character – a fresh, visually interesting setting – which combined with an artful director (James Mangold of “Walk the Line” fame) suggested “The Wolverine” might correct the wrongs of four years ago. It’s an infinitely more coherent picture than “Origins”, but sadly fails to establish much of an identity, whittling away its hefty runtime on repetitive character beats and unremarkable action. “The Wolverine” isn’t an expressive or sophisticated work, feeling stale and out of date from the start. Maybe if this film had arrived in 2009 instead of the pesky “Origins” things might be different, but in 2013 it can’t keep up with increasingly steep genre competition.
Summoned to Japan by an old friend whose life he helped protect during the Atomic blasts in Nagasaki, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is offered the chance to end his battle with immortality by the now dying Mr. Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi). Yashida has found a way to transfer Logan’s condition, and is keen to be the recipient of the curse, but the mutant is unconvinced. However asking politely was only Yashida’s first course of action, resorting to skills harboured by sidekick Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) to extract Logan’s invincibility by force. Left vulnerable and mired within mysterious familial politics, Logan ends up protecting Yashida’s grand-daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) in the wake of her grandfather’s sudden demise, fleeing Yakuza and a host of gnarly elders enraged by Mariko’s generous inheritance. With his flesh now vulnerable, Logan is forced to yield to his inner beast, leaving aside his haunted past for Mariko’s safety.
Jackman is terrific in the title role, but since donning the adamantium talons in 2000’s “X-Men” there’s been little question of that. The actor has the appropriate physicality and snarly demeanour, but has also consistently engaged with the character’s conflicts and fears throughout the course of his Marvel tenure, expertly moulding the toughest guy in the room into a bundle of tormented question marks. The greatest crime of “The Wolverine” is the lack of growth provided by the screenplay, forcing Jackman to toy with the same concepts that stronger film-makers have been asking him to mine for over a decade now. When Bryan Singer tapped into Logan’s past in 2003’s “X2”, fireworks erupted, Jackman was able to survey the character’s move from lone wolf to team player with panache and maturity, using his frazzled past to inform a movement into a position of mentoring. “The Wolverine” gives Jackman no fresh ground to traverse; it’s all broad heartbreak and repetitious pangs of guilt, brought out using hackneyed dream sequences involving deceased love Jean Grey (a jobbing Famke Janssen). The dynamic with Mariko is a watered down parallel to the character’s interactions with Anna Paquin in the initial burst of Singer flicks, but alas there we cared about the source of Wolverine’s newfound protective urges. Here he and Mariko form an unlikely bond with too much urgency and too little nuance, flirting uncomfortably with romantic clichés involving lumbering bodyguards and fine yet oddly profound women. “The Wolverine” is actually an impressively gender neutral affair, giving several of the lady figures ample chance to kick butt (particularly Yashida’s mutant servant Yukio portrayed by Rila Fukushima), but unfortunately the key entity is left marooned in a narrative arc obsessed with empty calorie acts of redemption. “The Wolverine” is hollow, no two ways about it.
The picture generally takes itself very seriously (only letting Jackman growl for comic effect sparingly) and any hope of a meaningful Japanese attitude seeping into the picture’s DNA is quickly expelled. “The Wolverine” embraces its new setting on Hollywood’s terms, bringing out stereotypical samurai imagery and unmemorable mantras to help justify the switch-up, but there’s not much of an atmosphere beyond these obvious tweaks. Mangold doesn't seem that interested in examining potential cultural difference in the Marvel universe, opting to overlook the fascinating question of mutant existence through Japanese history, in favour of colourless ninjas and moodily lit oriental structures. The fish out of water element feels jettisoned on the grounds it might have clashed with the new found tonal severity, but the omission of what it means to be Wolverine outside of American territory is wildly underwhelming. The Asian influence on the picture never amounts to more than a gimmick, occasionally inspiring picturesque frames rich in international calling cards, but hardly altering the decidedly Hollywood nature of story or action at all.
Mangold has dabbled with blockbusters before, namely in his underrated 2010 throwback “Knight & Day”. In that feature Mangold displayed a brilliantly kinetic sensibility and steady editorial rhythm, maintaining star allure (Tom Cruise headed up that venture) amidst the increasingly delirious set-pieces. Here the film-maker maintains composure but fails to ratchet up momentum or imprint identity onto proceedings, a lot of the action in the feature feeling like the work of a competent second unit as opposed to a passionate visionary. One fantastic beat involving typically hands on surgery and swordplay threatens to inject a much needed dose of vigour before hurtling into the final act, but the feature’s denouement is simply a tension devoid menagerie of CGI and paint by numbers villainy. If “The Wolverine” stumbles for its opening portion it cataclysmically underlines its shortcomings at the end, leaving the audience with a painfully open perspective of the film’s lack of human interest or over-arching potency. He’s more or less the same superhero we meet at the start come the finish, which speaks volumes concerning the product’s lack of soul or storytelling ambition.
It’s not a doggedly awful film (solidly lensed cinematography, Jackman in dependable form and one excellent, grisly interlude see to that) but “The Wolverine” isn't the final word on this literary figure by any stretch. It’s a fluff-piece, complied with minimum enthusiasm by an admittedly talented director, once again leaving a supposedly bountiful character flagellated. I take less issue with the religiously undefined supporting players, but the disconcerting ambivalence aimed in the direction of Jackman’s most famous screen role is upsetting. Maybe it’s time to ditch these individual capers, because if you can’t get your talisman right, then there’s little hope for successfully adapting the less blatantly vibrant personalities into worthy cinematic enterprises. Let’s leave the X-Men as a team from now on.
A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2013