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Film Review: 'The Wolverine'

Peter Debruge

Variety

11:30 AM EDT, July 23, 2013

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The Marvel team has recast the Incredible Hulk three times in recent years, but when it comes to their most popular hothead, Wolverine, there's only one actor fit to wear the claws: Hugh Jackman returns for his sixth screen appearance as the adamantium-reinforced superhero in James Mangold's smart, Japan-set "The Wolverine," an entertaining and surprisingly existential digression from his usual X-Men exploits. Though Wolvie comes across a bit world-weary and battle-worn by now, Jackman is in top form, taking the opportunity to test the character's physical and emotional extremes. Fans might've preferred bigger action or more effects, but Mangold does them one better, recovering the soul of a character whose immortality made him tiresome.

Though the majority of the Marvel portfolio belongs to Disney these days, Fox still controls the rights to Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, Wolverine and his X-Men brethren. While hardly on par with Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" trilogy, this movie represents Fox's attempt to repair damage done to the most iconic of those characters by Gavin Hood's silly "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" solo outing (which didn't hurt the box office, but weakened audiences' faith in how he might subsequently be treated onscreen).

With Wolverine's backstory clearly established, screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank are free to indulge an atmospheric one-off, returning to the character's doomed romance with Mariko Yashida, daughter of a powerful Japanese clan -- the fan-favorite story arc cooked up by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller back in 1982. Set sometime after "X-Men: The Last Stand" (in movie time), the film opens with Jackman's Logan sulking somewhere in the Yukon wilds. Having sworn off his violent ways, he identifies more with a feral grizzly than any of the sport hunters he encounters in town, setting up concerns (whether he can overcome his animal nature) and symbols (including a poisoned-tipped arrow) that resurface later in significant ways.

When careless humans kill the bear, Wolverine flies off the handle, only to be rescued by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a triangle-faced pixie with red-velvet hair who whisks him away to Japan, where a character from Logan's past wants to relieve him of his mutant healing ability. Saved from the atomic blast that destroyed Nagasaki, Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee) craves the immortality that Wolverine considers his curse and suggests a trade that would allow him to reunite with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who appears to him in visions and represents a poetic connection to past films.

It takes more than half an hour for "The Wolverine" to unleash its first action scene, but when it comes, the strike -- a squad of yakuza descend on Harada's funeral, attempting to assassinate his daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) -- proves elegantly choreographed and worthy of the Hong Kong films that clearly inspired it. (Only Hollywood movies can get away with imposing Chinese style on Japanese settings.) The next scene rivals any confrontation in recent Asian cinema, as Wolverine combats a group of yakuza thugs atop a speeding bullet train, and it's a thrill to see Jackman adding these new fighting styles to his character's repertoire.

Wolverine emerges victorious, of course, but with a crucial difference: His self-suturing wounds no longer heal themselves. Harada's nurse (Svetlana Khodchenkova, an award-winning Russian actress completely out of place here) has done something to impair Logan's abilities. In the process, the razor-clawed character goes from being merely cool to actually being interesting, since there's a genuine risk that he could die and/or be overpowered while trying to protect Mariko.

Now, take the next sentence with a grain of salt because you no doubt care more about comicbook movies than the person writing it: "The Wolverine" boasts one of the best pulp-inspired scripts yet. It's still full of corny dialogue (you know, those punchy one-liners conceived to fit in tiny talk bubbles above the characters' heads), but there's a genuine elegance to the way it establishes Logan's tortured condition and slowly brings the character around to recovering his heroic potential, methodically setting up and paying off ideas as it unfolds.

Of course, a script is just a blueprint, and it's still up to Mangold and his team to pull it off. This is where "The Wolverine" falls shy of greatness, especially in contrast with other directors -- Nolan, Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn, to name a few -- who have elevated the genre by bringing aspects of their own style to the table. Mangold's approach is clean and correct, but does nothing to advance the overall state of comicbook movies, owing largely to how heavily he borrows from other helmers.

Thankfully, his references are relatively upscale, ranging from an elegant "Yojimbo"-like scene in which lone-ronin Wolverine is outnumbered by ninjas to a "Diamonds Are Forever" nod involving an unforeseen swimming pool, with nods to Wong Kar Wai and He even convinced Jackman to channel some classic Clint Eastwood attitude in his wonderfully surly performance. Mangold's concept was clearly to make an Eastern Western, where the setting is Japan and the adversaries wield samurai swords, but the hero is fueled by true grit.

It's a remarkably effective strategy, right up until the end, when the film's finale suddenly feels indistinguishable from that of other superhero pics, as Wolverine takes on two villains -- one CG Silver Samurai and the other a campily attired snake-like mutant named Viper who molts her skin mid-climax. Whereas the Japanese-ness of everything that came before brought a certain "Kill Bill"-like novelty to the genre, this metal-against-metal showdown seems disappointingly familiar and breaks the cardinal rule when dealing with this character: that nothing is stronger than Wolverine's claws, except perhaps his spirit.


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