Every time Hugh Jackman's up there on screen, dining out on the rage stew that is the Wolverine, I think back to his Tony Award-winning performance as entertainer Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz." It was a terrible musical but a wonderful Broadway turn, flamboyant exuberance personified. Each strand of this performer's DNA is about giving the audience a great time. He's a strutter, and in "The Wolverine," Jackman's sixth and most dominant appearance as the Marvel Comics character, the immortal mutton-chopped loner looks as if he has been spending all his time up in the Canadian wilderness with a personal trainer, waiting for his close-up.
Logan/Wolverine is not the only mutant in "The Wolverine" — Svetlana Khodchenkova slinks around as Viper, with her flicking tongue of death — but the film is largely quasi-human, and it burrows into its own tunnel, a long way from the previous "X-Men" pictures, which always risk overcrowding.
This time Logan returns to Japan at the behest of a mysterious red-haired woman (Rila Fukushima). Decades earlier, Logan survived the atomic bombing of Nagasaki while saving the life of Japanese soldier Shingen Yashida (played by Hiroyuki Sanada). The soldier became a powerful and corrupt industrialist. On his deathbed, the dying man is looking to his old savior for one last favor. But the Japanese gangsters known as yakuza intrude, and Logan has sworn to protect Yashida's daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), and there's your plot, distilled from the four-part 1982 Marvel saga written by Chris Claremont and penciled by Frank Miller.
The screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie concocted the adaptation of "The Wolverine" that got this project going. Rewrites ensued by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank; James Mangold took it before the cameras in Australia and Japan. The results are quite good — the same old angst and grandiosity writ smaller than usual, and better for it.
The X-Men crew's intersections with real-life wartime horrors have long been signposts of the serious aspirations of the material. Watching "The Wolverine," one may resist the leveling and seared flesh of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki as fodder for another superhero picture. But Mangold handles it well: "The Wolverine" keeps its characters front and center, and only near the end does it turn into a routine, grinding action movie. Along the way there's a swell battle atop a speeding bullet train, the film's highlight. Also we get the occasional lyric interlude between Logan and the dream/memory of the woman he loved and lost (Famke Janssen), the source of all his undying grief.
The last couple of Wolverine movies provided their share of undying grief as well, the wrong kind, the mediocre movie kind. "The Wolverine" won't change anybody's mind about the character, or about what Jackman can do with it. It's simply a more focused scenario than usual, full of violence done up with a little more coherence and visceral impact than usual. Mangold doesn't bring tons of personality to "The Wolverine," but he does bring a reasonable and honorable sense of craft, trading in iconography borrowed from Westerns and Easterns and all sorts of movies. Marco Beltrami's musical score likewise carries echoes of previous movie themes, but it's evocative and lower-keyed than the usual Marvel bash. Who needs thundering music when you have Jackman glowering and raging and doing everything except tap dancing with those retractable claws?
'Wolverine' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language)
Running time: 2:06
Opens: Midnight Thursday