Saturday, 18 March 2017

"Nature made me a freak. Man made me a weapon. And God made it last too long."

When asked what his cinematic influences were for the latest and final Wolverine standalone movie, director James Mangold reeled off an impressive and enticing list that included Western classic Shane (1953), indie hit heart warmer Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Darren Aronofsky's bruising character piece The Wrestler (2008). Well, he certainly wasn't lying. In fact, Logan arguably owes these three films more than it does the Mark Millar penned comic series Old Man Logan, of which this is the loosest of adaptations.

The overall mood is sombre and elegiac, much like the 1953 Alan Ladd movie – Mangold (co-writing here with Scott Frank and Michael Green) even has one character repeat Shane's "there's no livin' with a killin''' speech verbatim to true tear jerking effect. Logan (Hugh Jackman) himself, meanwhile, echoes Mickey Rourke's past his prime show fighter in The Wrestler, being a shadow of his former perfect killing machine self. He still regenerates, but more slowly and painfully, every wound leaving a scar. He is slower and clumsier, limping and lurching, and even his infamous adamantium claws don't retract quite as neatly like they used to – one has got a bit lazy and started to stick.

Set roughly three decades from now, the film deliberately doesn't bring us an outlandish future. It is only the high speed, driver less auto trucks that suggest we are not in 2017.

Pursued by the kind of shifty, shadowy military scientific organisation that would make William Stryker proud, Logan hits the road with a mute mutant girl named Laura alongside his cranky old friend Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Stewart gives his finest turn yet in the role, playing Charles with alternating tenderness and profane gusto as the Professor battles dementia with pharmaceuticals. A necessity, given, as Boyd Holbrook's (Narcos) snide cyborg mercenary Donald Pierce puts it, his brain "is classified as a weapon of mass destruction now".

Smartly U-turning from the X-Men films' latter tendency to ramp up the world threat via increasingly incomprehensible digital effects, Mangold keeps things grounded and intimate. For the first time, the tension between Logan's animalistic killer instinct and his struggle to just be a good, decent human being is explored in depth and at length. It feels less like a sprinkle of seasoning on the action adventure stew than the true meat of the drama, and is most flavoursome in Logan's interactions, both compassionate and combative, with the ailing Xavier and the pint sized powder keg that is Laura. One is the croaking voice of his conscience, the other his chance to shape the future for the better. The film is never emotionally stronger than when this trio shares a scene.

Making her big screen bow, the ultra limber Dafne Keen is glorious as the brooding Laura. Athletic, acrobatic and fearless, she is what you might call a chip off the old block. To Wolverine's surprise, she boasts adamantium claws too – and she knows how to use them. Is she Logan's daughter? He is in denial and she won't utter a single word. How some will react to the sight of this young actress slicing, dicing, severing and goring her opponents remains to be seen – her actions are startlingly violent at times, right up there with Chloë Grace Moretz's gun toting turn as Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass (2010).

Taking its cue from gutsy carnage of Deadpool (2016), Logan also lets the berserker rage Wolverine loose at last. Dropping f-bombs as he punctures baddies' brains and lacerates their limbs, painting the sand, walls and trees black with blood. Allowed to be more adult, it is without a doubt the best solo Wolverine yet – if Jackman truly did accept a pay cut to allow for the higher certification, then that is his payback.

Although, even without the commercial pressure and artistic compromise that ultimately marred the last two Wolverine outings, Logan shares a few of their weaknesses. The urge to serve up a stakes raising big bad results in an unsatisfying reveal that externalises and personifies Logan's beneath the surface turmoil in an obvious and hoary way. And while sparing us the samurai robot nonsense of The Wolverine (2013), the final confrontation is a little unfocused in comparison with the taut set pieces that come earlier in the film.

Still, if this truly is Jackman's last run as Logan, then it is certainly a worthy swansong that allows him to go out on a high. A reminder that, when it comes to playing a properly magnetic anti-hero with a gruff 1970s cinema exterior and a dark reservoir of inner depth, Jackman really is the best at what he does.

Brutal, bloody, and beautiful, Logan is the gritty R-rated Wolverine movie we have all been waiting for. It feels right that it should be the last one, but it also feels a bit of a shame.

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