I once attended a screening of the original X-Men that was picketed. It was opening night and people with blue, green and furry make-up marched outside the theater, holding up signs that read “Equal Rights for Mutants!” and “Mutants are People, Too!” It was a publicity stunt arranged by 20th Century Fox, the studio releasing the film, and it worked. By the time all the fans were in their seats and the “picketers” rushed through the theater one more time before the lights went down, handing everyone fliers on “Mutant Equality,” the audience had been worked up into a giddy frenzy.
The first X-Men movie, released in 2000, was the only comic book movie that summer and the entire year. That’s incredible to consider. By comparison, The Wolverine is the fifth comic book movie this summer and marks the sixth time Hugh Jackman has played Logan, the mutant with the grouchy charisma, Elvis mutton chops and razor sharp claws. By combining an exotic new locale, a new director and a mash-up of genres, this is one of the better movies of the summer.
Logan is found living in the wilderness, a nomad without direction. He’s summoned to Japan by a powerful businessman named Yashida (played by veteran actor Hal Yamanouchi), whom he shares a unique bond. Logan intercepts an assassination attempt on Yashida’s daughter, Mariko (newcomer Tao Okamoto) and becomes her protector from an army of Yakuza, ninjas and even stranger foes lurking close by.
Jackman infuses such gruff charm, offbeat humor and impressive physicality into the role, he is as enjoyable in his iconic role as Sean Connery once was as James Bond. Next to the first and best X-Men film, this is the strongest showcase yet for Logan’s existential quest for identity and ability to blend into any period of time. His co-stars, the beautiful Okamoto and raven-haired Rila Fukushima (playing Logan’s “bodyguard”), are fetching but visibly inexperienced as actors. Far better are Yamanouchi and the reliably great Hiroyuki Sanada (as solid here as he was in The Last Samurai). Famke Janssen returns as Jean Grey and has a great deal of screen time with Jackman but her character is unfortunately used as a plot device and nothing more.
Logan is infused into the setting the same perfect way Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name or the blind warrior Zatoichi would have acquitted themselves. While not all of the film was shot in Japan, most of the story is set there and it’s refreshing to see Japanese city and country locales devoid of Blade Runner gloss. Director James Mangold ably stages sensational set pieces, establishes a pace that accommodates an intriguing story and, best of all, keeps it mostly plausible, set in the “real world.”
Only during the climactic battle does the movie lose its way. Svetlana Khodchenkova has been cast as the villainous Viper and her performance is a major distraction. She’s visibly having fun slinking around in skin tight outfits and vamping it up but she’s the only cast member who’s acting like she’s in a comic book movie.
There’s a big reveal during a mano y mano battle that is surprising, yet incredibly silly. What’s more, the solid efforts of the mostly Japanese cast can’t overcome their stereotypical roles.
Thankfully, the film is flawed but has more than enough to still recommend it. The opening scene is incredible. So is a fight scene atop a bullet train, the best sequence of its kind since the ending of Mission Impossible. Then there’s the soon-to-be-classic moment where Logan, in silhouette, removes a sword from his chest, an image that sums up all that is wild and warrior-like about the Wolverine.
★ ★ ★
Rated PG-13 / 126 Min.