30th Jul2013

‘The Wolverine’ Review

by Dan Clark

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Brian Tee, Hal Yamanouchi, Will Yun Lee, Famke Janssen | Written by Mark Bomback, Scott Frank | Directed by James Mangold

The-Wolverine

Even Wolverine’s healing factor should not to be able to recover from the adamantium bullet to the head that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Based on box office numbers it was quite a success, however nearly all fans and critics feel it was a huge disaster that forever tainted Wolverine’s film stock. Considering that tumultuous uphill battle The Wolverine  was up against it does its due diligence to remind you why the character of Wolverine is so beloved by fans.

As the title states this is Wolverine’s story. There are no other needles cameos of other X-Men, nor random attempts at franchise world building. Is this the Wolverine movie we have been waiting for? Yes it is…well at least some of it is. Much of it scrupulously illustrates that Ronin warrior quality of this hero—the solider without a master cursed to wonder the earth in a cloak of misery and regret. At times it barely resembles the common notions we have come to anticipate with comic book movies. Then as the story progresses it shamelessly begins to dumb itself down to placate to the lowest common dominator. The Wolverine  has greatest in it yearning to break free, but similar to the character himself it is never able to fully escape from its haunted past of mediocrity.

By basing much of the story on Chris Claremont’s original Wolverine comic book mini-series there was some promise to this narrative. Of course with any adaptation changes are bound to occur. Some of those changes are for the betterment of the film, while others are rather questionable. The Wolverine  picks up after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. Wolverine has always been a character marred by a history full of tragedy. The tragedy of being forced to kill his love Jean Grey appears to be too much even for him. He has become a nomad who has given up shaving and has taken up camp in the Alaskan forest.

Unexpectedly an old acquaintance reappears in Logan’s life, and offers him the gift of mortality. During the end of World War II Logan saved the life of Yashida, a Japanese prison guard. That guard grew up to be a head of a major corporation, and now lays on what surely will be his deathbed. Yashida brings Wolverine to Japan and offers to remove the healing factor that is prolong Wolverine’s miserable existence. Though Wolverine refuses the offer he soon discovers everything is not as it seems. Multiple forces are seeking to destroy Yashida and claim his beloved empire. Wolverine gets in entangled in this web of deception, and somehow a mysterious force has removes his healing factor without his knowledge.

Taking away a superhero’s power is a pretty common trope by this point. Superman 2Spider-Man 2, and even a recent movie like Iron Man 3 all played with that idea. Although this plot device is not new this film does handle it commendably. For one it ups the stakes in most of the action sequences. Similar to the character of Superman it is hard to build tension for a character that is invincible. Now with death as a possibility danger becomes more present than ever before. By using smaller touches, like Wolverine having to deal with physically getting tired for the first time, it adds a few extra layers to the concept. Though there is a lot more there that they did not tap into.  Something like suicide may be too dark of a road to travel down for this type of movie, but it appeared as if it wanted to explore that path further.

Part of the reason it wasn’t able to explore the inner workings of that concept further was how convoluted the plot becomes. At the funeral for Yashida assassins attempt to eliminate his granddaughter Mariko, but their attempt is thwarted with the help of Wolverine. This assignation attempt begins a chain of twist and turns with multiple sides attempting to usurp control. Having all these different elements gives the story the sense it started long before you got there, and is continuously waiting for you to catch up. Playing catch-up is not necessarily a bad thing as it can organically keep the story moving. The issue here is everything is so needlessly elaborate it is hard to determine what direction to go. Most of the major characters were criminally underdeveloped, or change sides so many times it was hard to determine if they have any purpose. When the story cuts the fat and becomes just about Wolverine protecting Mariko from her vicious family it works. Once it brings in the more comic book elements it develops into just another story about a man seeking ultimate power.

One part of the narrative that is also successful is the dissection of Wolverine’s character.  Hugh Jackman cannot get enough credit for what he brings to this role. At this point he has become indistinguishable from this part. He can handle every facet of this character from his gnawing growl to the emotionally broken inner core. The Wolverine  gives him ample opportunity to show all these different sides. Director James Mangold takes full advantage of the film’s setting.  Not only is Japan an interesting location to place the story, it also lends itself impeccably to the thematic characteristics. Similar to a classic samurai tale it takes its time building its foundation. Methodically the stage is set with Wolverine shown as broken as ever. This meticulous pacing is something new for comic book movies. In many ways the only reason the early onset would be considered part of a comic book movie is due to the titular character.

Another factor contributing to this unique manner is the action. Big special effects were used relatively sparingly—picking specific spots to go big. Much of the action came by way of well-choreographed martial arts fights and classic swordplay battles. That’s not to say action is only reserved for these smaller moments. A high-speed fight on top of a bullet train was an easy standout. While it looked rather horrible in the trailers, in the context of the film it worked remarkably. Each set piece is distinctively different then the next. Unfortunately the last action sequence is where the film falters the most. A lot of that is because of the misconception of how to raise stakes. Making the final foe’s size bigger and badder doesn’t make things more interesting—it just makes them more childish.  Not to mention watching Wolverine fight a gigantic samurai robot is tonally jarring when compared to the rest of the film.

When the more comic book facets come into play everything else suffers. The character of Viper is easily the worst culprit. Svetlana Khodchenkova plays the character and is never convincing as this sultry vixen full of menace. She starts as Yashida’s bedside nurse, but you know right from the start she has a hidden agenda. If you were to remove her storyline completely you would have a much better movie. When final climatic battle begins to take shape it is evident this movie didn’t realize what it had, instead it felt the need to pacify to fanboy expectations.  The final twist, like every other twist in the movie, was obvious and provided more plot issues than answers. Not to mention it does everything possible to derail much of the emotional resonance established early on.

What you have to remind yourself it is about the journey not about the destination. The Wolverine  does offer an intimate look at a complex character. It is this character study inside an exciting summer action movie—a combination that is vastly different than the majority of what is out there right now. The Wolverine  does not hit the heights of X2: X-Men United or X-Men: First Class, but it comes a lot closer than one might expect.

***½  3.5/5

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