Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: "The Wolverine"

Director: James Mangold
Runtime: 126 minutes

In an age when superheroes dominate the summer with all manner of spectacle, there is something shockingly intimate about James Mangold's The Wolverine. Where the last standalone Wolverine movie was a jumbled, incoherent  mess, this one latches onto a single story and dives in headfirst. The number of mutants and flashy superpowers is kept to a minimum, and there's hardly a cheesy costume in sight. It makes sense that the word X-Men was taken out of the title for this latest enterprise, which is barely a superhero or action movie at all. The Wolverine is not without its flaws, but its modest ambitions and aversion to city-leveling chaos do produce some pleasing character-driven moments along the way.

There is, actually, a city that gets destroyed in The Wolverine, but it's not part of any titanic battle between mutants. Rather, it's the dropping of the atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, where Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is being held as a POW at a Japanese military prison. As he hides from the nuclear blast, he ends up saving Japanese soldier Yashida (Ken Yamamura). Years later, an aging Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) calls on Logan via his aid Yukio (Rila Fukushima). Yet when Yukio finally finds the Wolverine, he's a shadow of himself. Still grappling with the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan has let himself go (as much as his enhanced musculature will let him, that is). He looks like an unkempt mountain man, and largely avoids society and mutant heroics at any cost. 

And it's with very little enthusiasm that Logan goes with Yukio to Japan. Once there, he gets cleaned up, and learns that the old Yashida may be able to cure him of his immortality, allowing him to finally grow old and die. Of course, sinister forces are at work, and soon Logan is sucked into familial and political drama involving Yashida's son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Rather than get straight to the slicing, shooting, and stabbing, this film is content to take its time as it builds a pulpy mystery of a plot.

It takes roughly half an hour before the first action sequence arrives in the film, and it's not the most satisfying from a visual standpoint. Some of the editing is choppy and obscures the choreography. Yet even as I was somewhat frustrated by how some of the action was stitched together, I realized that I still found myself engaged with the material, and caring about what was going on. The script, from Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, has enough economical character work that you have reason to care about what's happening. 

More than any superhero film in recent years, The Wolverine is more content to act as a character piece. Each action sequence actually propels the narrative forward, and the scale is never magnified for the sake of creating unnecessary spectacle. Yes, the climactic showdown does take a cartoony left turn, but with the first two acts so effectively assembled, the sins of the last chunk of the story are largely forgivable. 

What the film lacks is simply any sort of stylistic stamp to heighten its positive qualities further. Darren Aronofsky was once attached to direct, way back in 2011. As many good things as Mangold brings to the table as a director, one can't help but wonder about the film that might have been under Aronofsky's guidance. To his credit, however, Mangold does make the film feel quite grounded, especially in the early stretches. He also pulls off a hugely enjoyable fight scene set atop a speeding bullet train, which has a certain disregard for physics yet feels completely in line with this more toned down aesthetic. 

And, as mentioned before, the film also keeps one engaged because of its dedication to character work. Jackman could easily play this role on autopilot by now, but the actor seems reinvigorated here. There are new shades of grief and exhaustion brought out by the plot, meaning that there's more for him to do than scowl and project sarcastic indifference. In fact, this film may contain the actor's best work as the X-Men's most famous member. The supporting Japanese cast are also quite enjoyable. Fukushima's red-haired Yukio has a fun dynamic with Wolverine that suggests a more hesitant Batman and Robin pairing. Even with Wolverine's existential gloom and doom, his partnership with Yukio creates some levity, and ensures that the film is never drowning in self-seriousness. Tao Okamato also handles her role quite well, and she's served quite nicely by the script. She may be in need of some rescuing at the end, but she's also been written as a smart and compassionate character who can throw a few punches and stabs when needed. 

Even Svetlana Khodchenkova (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as slinky femme fatale Viper is a great deal of fun. The film may shortchange her by not giving an ounce of time to her motivation or background, but the actress' vamping is tempered so as not to distract. She's a sign of the lingering cartoonishness of the X-Men world, but compared to other characters in the franchise's cinematic universe, she feels quite tame. That's one of the most interesting things about The Wolverine: aside from Jackman, the women are the ones who really dominate the screen, which makes for a nice change of pace in a genre overrun with testosterone. 

With X-Men: Days of Future Past, set to hit theaters next summer, there's a little bit of tension sapped from The Wolverine, knowing that the famed mutant has to survive in some capacity. And as spectacle, The Wolverine has only one noteworthy sequence (and honestly, I wanted the bullet train bit to go on much longer). But through all of the ordinariness of the film there remains an immense appeal in Jackman's version of the character. Here, he comes off as a gruffer and less polished Bond figure, and that's quite a good thing. The Wolverine may not be the great standalone Wolverine film that it once could have been. Yet in a summer filled with exhausting visual excess, there is something ultimately winning about a movie that pushes superhero theatrics to the side in favor of moody character drama for as long as it can, before the demands of the summer blockbuster come crashing in. And even then, Mangold's film remains remarkably small and focused in ambition and execution. The film may not have enough to make itself essential viewing, but it's worth checking out if only because of how effortlessly it works against being just another superhero movie.

Grade: B-

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