At the beginning of every article or review about a relevent film I always make sure to confess that I am not a comic book reader. In some ways I like to think of this fact as a bonus. When you’ve read a novel and you have fallen deeply in love with the stories characters and plot and then watch a film adaptation of that novel, it’s sometimes hard to watch it and judge it solely on how well it told its own story. Without even trying to, we carry the baggage of expectation into the film with us and sometimes the only thing we can see is what isn’t there.
I have a close friend who is a Harry Potter fanatic (both books and films) and she cannot stand the third film, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban simply because of how many of the book’s many subplots were dropped and how certain plot-lines were condensed and changed to flow better as a film narrative. I loved the books and I agree with most critics that the third film in the series was a quantum leap forward in terms of direction and pace and in translating the epic scope of the books to the screen for the first time. The only thing my friend can focus on however, is the changes and how much is missing.
What is the point of this preamble? I’m glad you asked. My only connection to the X-Men universe is through the film versions. My former wife was an avid reader of the comic and she spent the months leading up to the first films release bringing me up to speed on who was who and what each characters powers were, so going into the film I felt like I knew a little of what was going on at least. But since I hadn’t read any of the comics, my first impression of the world of the X-Men was the flawed but very enjoyable first film.
Over the years I’ve read about the legendary comic mini-series on which The Wolverine is based. Almost since the first film came out there have been fans asking for the Logan goes to Japan storyline to be told. I knew only the barest outline of what the story was, but I thought it sounded great. How well does the film version stack up against the comic book mini-series? I have no idea. This review won’t be a compare and contrast affair. It can’t be actually, since I don’t really know how well it stacks up.
So bear in mind that this will not be a review of the adaptation of the comic. It will only be a review of the film, as it stands.
The first scene is pretty amazing. It starts in Nagasaki on the day the bomb was dropped. In fact the first image we really focus on is the planes crossing the clear sky on their way to the drop point. Logan is a POW and as the alarms ring and the Japanese soldiers drop to their knees and await the blast, a lone guard free’s as many of the POW’s as he can, including Logan. As the bomb detonates and the massive wall of fire and destruction rolls across the horizon towards them, Logan grabs the guard, throws him into the well-like pit where he, himself was held, covers him with the metal door and shields him from the hellish fires the engulfed the entire city.
As the blast fires fade, Logan stands over the shell-shocked guard, his body burned black and charred from the blast. We share the guards amazement as he watches Logan groan in what must be hellish pain and his body starts to regenerate and heal itself.
Picking up an unknown number of years after the events of X3: The Last Stand, the film proper begins with Logan living the life of a hermit out in the wilds of the Canadian wilderness. He is a man tormented by his past and the things he had to do. The thing that is eating him alive is the fact he was forced to kill Jean Grey who had been resurrected from death as The Dark Phoenix in X3.
Counting The Wolverine, there have been six different films in the X-Men universe. Being that this film is tied thematically to X3 which was released seven-years ago, I was somewhat surprised at how little the filmmakers recap the events of that film. Given how little studios, producers and writers tend to trust the audience to have seen even the previous film in a franchise, I was actually stunned that they didn’t even touch on the death of Jean Grey or why Logan killed her, especially since those events happened in a film that was two installments back. Understand, this isn’t a complaint, it’s simply an observation.
I believe it’s a statement of sorts by the filmmakers. A statement that, A: they know that if we are watching Hugh Jackman as The Wolverine then we have seen at least bits and pieces of the previous films. And a statement that, B: they are doing things a little bit different.
After the complete mess that was X3 and the un-mitigated disaster that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I found that to be encouraging as the film started to tell its story. In stark contrast to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which was in such a hurry to get to the final act of the film that it blew past all of the really interesting parts of Logan’s life, The Wolverine takes it’s time letting its storyline unfurl.
The young guard that Logan saved has become the founder of Japan’s richest and most powerful tech giant. As an old man who is close to death, Yashida is looking to re-pay the debt of honor to Logan. Yashida sends spunky young Ninja in training, Yukio, to find Logan and convince him to return with her to Japan so that he may re-pay Logan in person.
This is what Yukio tells Logan when she finds him, but it is most assuredly not the whole story. I enjoyed the slow reveal of the story. Most films of this nature are a quick set-up and then its just moving breathlessly forward from one insane action set-piece to the next. That isn’t how this story unfolds. The film seems to revel in the small details of the journey. We watch as Logan sits bolt upright in his seat on the private plane to Japan as Yukio, curled like a kitten on a seat across from him, sleeps. As he grips the arm rests during turbulence, his stoic look and the half-empty bottle of scotch on the table in front of him says more about his fear of flying than any dialogue could.
These are small moments. Quiet moments with our hero while he does normal things. They are so interesting because we almost never see them on-screen. I hope I am not making it sound boring because it most certainly is not. This is where having played the character six times over thirteen-years really pays off for Hugh Jackman. The one thing the whole of the geek world was in agreement on about the X-Men films has always been that, height issues aside, Hugh Jackman is the perfect Logan/Wolverine.
Hugh Jackman is comfortable in the role. He wears it like a favorite suit. Much like Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark, Jackman doesn’t seem to be acting anymore. He is Wolverine. That easy comfort with the character serves this particular story very well, especially during the early scenes, because it allows Jackman to just be. The way he walks into a room. The way he looks around. Even the way he endures being bathed like a giant dog by three very stern looking Japanese woman with long-handled brushes in a genuinely funny bit of physical comedy. He has the body language of someone who is used to being almost indestructible. Even in situations where danger is a possibility, he carries himself as if he is ready for danger but confident he can handle it. That kind of ease of performance can be so subtle that it doesn’t even appear to be a performance anymore, but anyone who saw Jackman’s Jean Valjean in December’s Les Miserables knows how broken and beaten he can be on-screen. When you contrast that with Logan, you see how good he really is.
In fact the whole cast is good. Really good. Rila Fukushima brings a feisty and grungy vibe to Yukio that makes her instantly adorable. She is a Japanese model who is making her crossover into films (this is her second feature) and though she is beautiful, her face has an almost alien quality that sets her apart from her female co-star. The bright red hair, thigh-high combat boots and ever-present sword border on fetishism but rather than make her a hyper-sexualized fantasy figure, the film wisely gives her an almost tomboy quality. As the film progresses, she takes on a side-kick role to Logan that works better than it has any right to. Their relationship has a big-brother/little-sister undercurrent that feels natural. I wouldn’t be opposed to a Wolverine-Yukio spin-off film where they travel the world solving crimes.
Tao Okamoto brings a classical grace and beauty to Meriko, Yashida’s granddaughter. After a failed assassination attempt results in Logan and Meriko fleeing the city and spending some time hiding out in her childhood home, the sparks that have been there between them ignite into full-blown romance. There are sections of the second-act where you actually forget this is an Superhero action film and I absolutely mean that as a compliment. The romance blossoms quickly and moves very fast, but almost all film romances do. We are working within a two-hour running time after all. Your mileage may vary, but I found this section to be sweet.
Yes, I realize I just used the word sweet to describe a romance in a Wolverine film. I hope that brings home just how different this film is. I enjoyed this section of the film because it showed us something we’re not used to seeing: Logan happy. I’m sure it’s a confluence of things, the fact the Hugh Jackman is so comfortable in the role, that he, himself, seems to really like the character he is playing, the fact that we have spent so many films…so many years…with this character now and seen him go through so much. We’ve seen him sacrifice so many things for the good of others. To see him get to be happy and share a moment of peace with someone was nice. Yes, it was even sweet.
It is a well-known fact that Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) was attached to direct this film originally and that his departure over Creative Differences pushed the film back by almost a year. There are those of us who will always wonder what a Wolverine film by Aronofsky would have looked like, but James Mangold does a rather remarkable job, having replaced Aronofsky in the Directors chair.
James Mangold is no Brett Ratner either. He has gotten Oscar-winning performances out of Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted) and Reece Witherspoon (Walk the Line) in Oscar calibre hit films. He is an actor’s director and knows how to tell a story visually and thematically. This is, by far, his biggest film and for the most part he does a spectacular job of crafting a film that goes a long way towards erasing the bad-taste left by X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
I don’t know this to be true, but if I had to guess, I would say the creative differences that led to Aronofsky leaving the project were all contained within the films final act. That is where the movie leaves the refreshingly intimate and distinctly human story that has elevated the first ninety-minutes to near greatness for the more familiar and stale conventions of a Summer action blockbuster.
It isn’t that the last act is bad because it really isn’t. It’s executed with professional precision and state of the art computer graphics. It’s more that the filmmakers have spent the entire running time telling a story that is more drama than spectacle. It was so interesting to see Logan deal with human issues and the filmmakers tell a character driven story that the sudden shift to generic Superhero posturing feels oddly anti-climatic.
There are poorly defined villains who become supervillains and plot-twist after plot-twist that are not really surprising to anyone who has ever seen this kind of film. I watched the film twice before writing this review and as I watched it for the second time I noticed something that I may or may not have just been imagining. During the first ninety-minutes of the film, Hugh Jackman seemed really engaged and alive in the part. Once the film shifts into this last act and the effects start just stacking on top of one another, it almost feels like he loses interest a little. It’s like he knows the acting part of the job is over and now he just has to let the claws do the work for him.
Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Maybe I’m projecting what I was feeling as I watched it. I don’t know. I just know that even as the film gets more frantic and the action kicks into overdrive and the fights get more outlandish, the film seems to lose energy for me. I would have loved to have seen a version of this film where the final conflict is resolved the same way the story has been told throughout the film to that point: in a more intimate and human way.
Not every film, not even every Superhero Summer Action film, has to be told the same way. They don’t always have to keep upping the ante and ending with bigger and bigger fights. Bigger and Bigger effect shots. What frustrates me about this film is that the filmmakers seemed to know that. They were telling a completely different story in a refreshing and original way and it was thrilling. Then I guess the Studio bean counters intervened and demanded that the last twenty-minutes be an all out battle royale in the tradition of all the other action films of the summer.
What had so much heart, emotion and human drama became something more hollow and generic at the end. I am still going to recommend this film just for the first ninety-minutes though because they are really really good. Even great at times.
After X3:The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, having three-quarters of a great Wolverine film is something to cheer about. Maybe next time they’ll actually make a great film from start to finish.
3 out of 5 stars.
Until next time, Keep the Projector Threaded.