Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 20, 2017)
Back in 2009, we got the first X-Men spinoff movie via X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That title implied it’d be one in a series of character prequels, but as of 2017, it stands as the only X-Men Origins movie.
I suspect the lackluster reception accorded to Origins had something to do with it. The movie did decent business, but fans seemed disenchanted by it and it fell short of both creative and financial expectations.
Even though the theme went kaput – or was channeled into the broader focus of 2011’s “prequel” X-Men: First Class - Fox did go ahead with another Wolverine movie. Simply titled The Wolverine, this 2013 film earned better reviews than its predecessor and made more money worldwide.
I was among those who found the 2009 film to be lackluster, but I remained eager to see where the series would go. The Wolverine opens with a prologue circa 1945 in which Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) saves a Japanese soldier named Yashida (Ken Yamamura) from an atomic bomb.
From there the film picks up after the events of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Haunted by the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Logan goes into isolation. Although he places himself in the middle of nowhere, the mysterious Yukio (Rila Fukushima) eventually finds him.
Yukio does so as the emissary for an elderly, dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi). Ostensibly Yashida wants Logan to come to Japan to pay his debt of gratitude, but in truth, the former Japanese soldier wants to steal Logan’s power of immortality from him.
On the surface, this doesn’t sound like a bad idea, as Logan has grown weary of his existence. Nonetheless, he declines and Yashida dies – maybe.
When the Yakuza attempt to kidnap Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Logan intervenes but he finds that his wounds don’t heal as they normally do. We follow Logan’s attempts to keep Mariko safe and get to the bottom of his situation.
Back in 1982, Chris Claremont and Frank Miller created a successful four-issue Wolverine comic book miniseries, and this film comes loosely based on that material. Funny – I wasn’t wild about those magazines, but as brought to the screen here, the story works well.
Best known for dramatic fare such as Walk the Line and Cop Land, director James Mangold seemed like an odd choice for The Wolverine. However, he did make a Western with the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma and he went into the action genre – unsuccessfully, in my opinion – with 2010’s Knight and Day.
Because of Mangold’s background with drama, it comes as a surprise that the movie’s character scenes tend to fare the worst. This becomes a particular drag in the film’s second act, as we spend a lot of time with Logan and Mariko as they get to know each other. While these scenes add some character dimensionality, they tend to plod.
I think part of the problem comes from the lack of chemistry between Jackman and Okamoto. While lovely, she exhibits little personality, so her scenes feel stagnant, and Jackman can’t bring out much zest in her.
The sequences between Logan and Yukio work much better – so much better that I couldn’t help but wish Logan would romance brash, intriguing Yukio instead of dull Mariko. Granted, this wouldn’t make a ton of sense in story terms, mainly because Yukio doesn’t seem like someone who needs protection – she can handle herself. Still, the movie comes to life when Yukio appears, and that makes the blandness of the Mariko sequences more glaring.
Despite these, The Wolverine works pretty well, largely due to a combination of Jackman’s talents and some solid action. Again, it comes as a surprise that Mangold handles the fights and other exciting bits so well, as that’s not a strong aspect of his résumé. As I mentioned, Mangold embraced the genre with Knight and Day, but he showed no affinity for it.
Happily, it appears Mangold learned some lessons between movies, as the action parts of The Wolverine zing. A fight on a bullet train feels completely absurd, but it’s a delight anyway, and a battle in a snowstorm proves to be elegant and dynamic at the same time.
13 years into his run as Logan/Wolverine, Jackman continued to bring range and depth to the role. One would imagine Jackman would be sick of his signature character, but he still seems to enjoy the part. He seems invigorated by the stronger than usual script and creates one of his better turns as Wolverine.
Due to the logy scenes between Logan and Mariko, The Wolverine occasionally drags, but its many strengths compensate for these segments. The film gives us a compelling and exciting investigation of its title character.
Footnote: a mid-credits sequence shows up that acts as a direct bridge toward 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.