Free of heroes and villains in spandex costumes, “The Wolverine” strives mightily to be unlike any other comic book movie.
As directed by James Mangold, Hugh Jackman’s long-awaited return as his X-Men character succeeds handsomely in this mission for most of its running time. It ends the same way just about every other comic book movie ends – this may be the curse of the genre – but while ‘The Wolverine’ blazes its own trail, it is exciting to behold.
Not long after it begins, “The Wolverine” plays as if Jackman’s Logan has wandered into a Japanese gangster film already in progress. The setting immediately places it apart from other Marvel movies, including the X-Men series. The script is based on the most celebrated Wolverine comic storyline, the 1982 “Japanese saga” written and drawn by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller.
Mangold and the screenwriters Mark Bomback, Scott Frank and Christopher McQuarrie make Japan central to the story, not just its scenery and locales, but its legends and history. Several characters equate Logan with a Ronin, a samurai warrior without a master.
Samurai movies are a strong influence on “The Wolverine,” but so is film noir. Like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe often did, Logan finds himself caught up in the personal betrayals and political corruption that swirl from the rotten core of a powerful family. As in the classic Marlowe films, the plot turns murky and confusing. A host of duplicitous characters are introduced in a brief span; keeping them straight can be difficult.
While living as a hermit in the Canadian wilderness, Logan is summoned to Tokyo to bid farewell to an old friend. The man, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), is now Japan’s leading industrialist, but Logan (who you should remember is immortal and invulnerable) remembers him as the young prison guard he saved from the Nagasaki bombing.
That may sound impossible, but the flashback that opens the film makes it almost plausible. And, yes, “The Wolverine” opens with the atomic devastation of Nagasaki, an immediate indication this will not be a cheerful picture. The story is suffused with pangs of death, and it is, rather quixotically, a tale of rebirth for a man who cannot die.
Yashida is only days, perhaps hours, away from succumbing to cancer. Yet he has a plan to cheat death. Sensing that Logan despairs of his unending life, Yashida asks Logan to surrender his healing powers in one of those transplant operations that are possible in comic books. Logan declines, and Yashida dies the next morning.
When the Yakuza attempt to assassinate Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), at the funeral, Logan leaps into action to rescue her, then takes her into hiding in the countryside. While on the run, Logan realizes he is slowly losing his ability to heal – a lousy discovery to make after suffering several gunshot wounds.
While “The Wolverine” may sound more atmospheric and plot-heavy than other comic movies, Mangold packs it with action. Wolverine is a brawler by nature, and he plows through Yakuza, ninjas and samurai with equal ferocity. Because of the Asian setting, the fight scenes incorporate plenty of martial arts swordplay.
In the James Bond/Indiana Jones tradition, “The Wolverine” has one showcase action sequence so mind-blowing that viewers will rave about it as they leave the theater. It appears early on as Logan battles Yakuza killers atop a bullet train racing through Japan in excess of 200 mph. Logan alternates between digging his claws into the train’s steel frame to hold himself in place and using the slipstream to fly like Superman. This dizzying set piece is a respite of fun in an otherwise moody story.
Unlike the previous – and best forgotten – Wolverine solo movie, this one fits into the existing X-men movie series. It follows the third film (subtitled “The Last Stand”) and sets up next summer’s “X-men: Days of Future Past” (fans will not want to miss the end-credits teaser scene).
Yet “The Wolverine” is curiously low on mutants. The cast includes two other mutant characters. Yukio (Rila Fukushima) is a skilled swordswoman who fights as Wolverine’s ally, but her single mutant power is the ability to foresee people’s deaths, which I imagine would require a lifetime prescription to antidepressants.
The other mutant is a woman who calls herself Viper (Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova), who has the power to resist all poisons. That would be useful on nature walks, though I don’t see the evil applications. However, like Batman’s Poison Ivy, she also can make herself toxic and develops other powers whenever the screenwriters find it convenient. For the record, her counterpart in the comics has no superpowers at all.
The mutant lore and other comic book elements lurking within the gangster drama finally, inevitably, burst through in the climax, which occurs in one of those polished-chromium medical labs required of every X-Men movie. The story succumbs to its science-fiction elements and Wolverine battles the robotic Silver Samurai that looks an awful lot like the metallic creature Thor fought at the end of his movie.
Even if “The Wolverine” ultimately can’t avoid its comic book roots, the movie is still powered by the morose soul of Jackman’s performance. Famke Janssen appears in Logan’s dreams as his twice-deceased love Jean Grey, tempting him like a siren to surrender his pain-filled life and join her in the comfort of death.
Wolverine has long been more convincing to me as a tragic antihero than Batman. Jackman sells the one significant aspect that does separate “The Wolverine” from other comic book movies. Up until the end we wonder if he will accept Jean’s offer, because her arguments are sound. In “The Wolverine,” death is as seductive as it is fearsome.