Monday, July 29, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: THE WOLVERINE Works, But Never Quite Well Enough

It's kind of strange to me that Hugh Jackman's incarnation of everyone's favorite mutant has become what most people see as the definitive interpretation of the character. In truth, the filmic Logan is much slicker and subdued than the brutish berserker of the comics. That attitude could easily describe The Wolverine: a streamlined effort that functions well, but is missing the rage and intensity that the character needs, especially for his solo outing (like the rest of the world, let's just ignore that last Wolverine film).

The premise of the film takes a loose inspiration from the now classic run of comics by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller: Logan gets into some bloody shenanigans while visiting Japan, and happens to fall in love with the daughter of a powerful family. The similarities pretty much end there, as this version of the story has the grandfather of the family be a survivor of the bombing at Nagasaki, and he has Logan to thank for that. In return, he offers Logan the chance at mortality, but conspiracies and ulterior motives force Logan into letting loose and clawing up waves of bad guys.

I've actually tried to boil the plot down in my synopsis, since the actual plot of the movie is really quite convoluted. It never tips over into full-on confusion, but there seems to be a little too much espionage and twist-y writing going on instead of a focused character piece, which is what this movie needed to be. Logan's entire arc is about him dealing with the death of Jean Grey (who seems to haunt him either in hallucinations or actual ghostly ways. The movie never really nails this down) and denying his animalistic ways, or "refusing the call" if you will. While this should be the focal point of the movie, the film seems much more interested in the Yashida clan and the crazy corporate goings-on that Logan has been thrust into. While that gives him plenty of Yakuza thugs and ninjas to impale, it takes away a lot of time for Logan to grow as a character. In fact, by the end of the movie, I felt that this version of the character had been completely played out. There really isn't much left to explore, and this film pretty much feels like the last bit of real character and depth we'll see for the ol' Canucklehead. While it isn't much, Hugh Jackman still brings his trademarked lovable gruffness and he seems much more engaged than in previous efforts. You can tell he gets a kick out of each curse word he's allowed to use, and as juvenile as it seems, vulgarity fits with the character so well and Jackman sells it perfectly.

However, Logan shines brightest during the film's opening. Seeing him out in the woods and dealing with some unethical hunters in a bar is exactly the kind of singular focus missing from the rest of the film. In fairness, the fault lies in the film's second act, where all the espionage and questionable motives run rampant. The final set-piece of the film is really fun but not exactly spectacular. The whole film feels small, and that would be okay if there was a more concentrated effort towards plumbing Logan's character. He mostly just follows around Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter of the Yashida clan, and therefore gets moved around at the convenience of the plot.

Now, I said in my title that The Wolverine does work, and on an action scale, that's true. The first fight at a funeral is well-staged and rough, and the following battle on top of a bullet train is phenomenal. It looks much better than anything seen in the advertising, and had me extremely engaged. Not only do you get to see Logan be vicious in close quarters, but the way he outsmarts a thug is both clever and humorous. And that final set-piece I mentioned is rollicking, if not entirely original or astounding. The staging and execution are both great, but I think what robs the finale of its weight is the lack of a definitive threat. Our villain roster is mostly headlined by Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who is alluring and sexy, but never at all feels like a legitimate threat or a "big bad." There's also Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), Mariko's father, but his presence is diminished by the film's end, although he does get a nice little duel with Logan at the end of act two. The whole movie gets wrapped up in its own mysteries and that makes the ending a lot more perfunctory instead of revelatory.

What makes The Wolverine work (despite itself) is a combination of director James Mangold's professional composition and an earnest attitude from all the actors. Mangold knows how to shoot a movie, and especially knows how to stage action. Every sequence is easy to follow and distinct enough that it doesn't feel like you saw the same fight earlier in the film. As outlandish as the fights get, there's still a sense of reality and weight to things, like when Logan slashes open a wall in the bullet train. There's some great imagery at work as well. The aforementioned duel between Logan and Shingen is beautifully lit in blue, and a sequence near the end that has Logan pierced by loads of arrows is visually exciting. It also helps the movie a lot that all the actors feel invested, and even though Viper may not be an imposing threat, Khodchenkova's performance is deliciously wicked. You can tell she was having a fun time. The mostly Japanese cast do a great job of not seeming stereotypical, and special notice should be given to Yukio (Rila Fukushima), Mariko's only friend and Logan's counterpart for most of the movie. Her presence is sorely missed during the second act slog, but her return near the end is almost worth her absence. She has an otherwordly quality about her, and her character feels almost squandered when you realize she isn't going to be the focus of Logan's romantic feelings. Actually, Logan and Mariko's romance does feel somewhat forced, but there is a really excellent scene that comes out of it when the two sit down for a meal. Their forced romance is acceptable if just for that scene.

In the end, there's nothing outstandingly wrong with The Wolverine and there's nothing truly exceptional about it either (not counting that train sequence). There is a sense of "there could have been more", but what we're presented with is fine. It will certainly sate the appetite of die hard Wolverine fans, and is a pleasant enough distraction for casual viewers as well. While it may leave something to be desired, it's certainly not a disappointment. As a second-to-last outing for Hugh Jackman's take on the character, it satisfies. Whenever they do get around to rebooting and recasting the role though, I hope they get someone more burly and less hunky.

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