Sunday, 27 October 2013

"What they did to me, what I am, can't be undone."

In a summer seemingly packed with movies that work their way up to levelling entire cities, The Wolverine takes an altogether different tack by shifting the annihilation to it's opening. Within the first three minutes, Nagasaki has been obliterated in a mushroom cloud of fire and dust, courtesy of a B-29 bomber and the nuclear bomb known as Fat Man that effectively signalled the end of World War II.

In the midst of the mayhem, we find Hugh Jackman's Logan – a.k.a. The Wolverine – chained up and contractually shirtless in the middle of a POW camp. As sirens blare and Japanese officers commit Hara-kiri with honour, Logan is first saved by, and then saves, an officer with a stricken conscience.

It's an audacious opening that some might find in dubious taste, but there are enough grace notes here – the opening shot of the B-29 approaching its target is serenely beautiful – to suggest this will be light years ahead of the lamentable X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). And so it proves, even if it never hits the heights of the first two X-Men movies or X-Men: First Class (2011).

After that grand opening, things scale back as we meet the Canadian mutant living rough on his home turf as, effectively, a grizzly X-Man plagued by visions of his lost love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, lounging in a négligée through protracted dream sequences) and as haunted by the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) as anyone who saw it. He's a wounded bear who even encounters an actual wounded bear, just to pound home that particular metaphor. Logan has vowed never to hurt anyone again, a vow he breaks within 40 seconds, but before he can kill some plaid clad idiots in a bar, he's tracked down by the slinky Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a flame haired employee of the man he saved in World War II, and brought to Japan, where he becomes embroiled in a convoluted plot involving the yakuza, indestructible samurai and a new lady love in the form of beautiful Mariko (Tao Okamoto) who, in a nice twist, sees Logan and his claws as something to love, not fear.

And it's in its Japanese roots that The Wolverine becomes most intriguing. Canadian section aside, the film takes place entirely in Japan. That alone is enough to make it look and feel unlike any other superhero movie to date, director James Mangold (3:10 To Yuma) capturing a real sense of the place as he frames Logan against the neon lit streets of Tokyo or the lush backdrop of rural ryokans.

Sadly, the embrace of Japanese culture often feels skin-deep, a superficial whisk through a checklist of clichés. There's the awkward visit to a love hotel with Mariko as they go on the run; Logan struggling to come to grips with chopsticks like a gaijin fool; not to mention being constantly referred to as a ronin, a samurai without a master. Yet there's no sense his experiences have much of an impact – by the end he's as authentically Japanese as YO! Sushi. Just a shame he doesn't show up at a karaoke bar.

One of the many criticisms of Wolverine's last solo outing was that it never had the courage to trust in the appeal of its lead character, instead chucking in large numbers of pointless mutants. The lesson has been learned here, with a more scant mutant offering (Svetlana Khodchenkova shows up as the venom spitting vixen Viper). Instead, Logan bloodlessly slices his way through armies of yakuza and ninjas, in keeping with the films ambitiously 'realistic' tone.

It's all the better for it, from a free-for-all that puts the fun in funeral to the movie's highpoint, a creative showdown on top of a speeding Shinkansen. And, if you have any qualms about pitting a highly trained, invulnerable mutant against scores of rent-a-piñata henchmen, Mangold and Jackman level the playing field slightly by depriving Logan of his powers. With his healing factor and animalistic senses on hold, Logan develops an aversion to shotgun blasts that slows him down considerably, and gives Jackman something interesting to play with sixth time around. That element is far more absorbing than his endless moping after Jean.

Whilst certainly an improvement on the last outing for Jackman's Wolverine, it's regrettable that in a film concerned with immortality, nothing lasts forever. The final showdown, tonally and in terms of scale, is deeply unsatisfying, with ludicrous reveals and a plot turn so convoluted it threatens to derail the movie entirely. Much like the Wolverine himself then, this is a film that marches to its own drum, and while it may divide the non-fans from the faithful, the latter will applaud its efforts to deepen and champion their hirsute hero.

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