Saturday, May 24, 2014

Children of the Atom, Part 6: The Wolverine (2013)

            Countdown to X-Men: Days of Future Past, Part 6…

            If X-Men: First Class was a course-correction of sorts for the series after the disastrous X3, then we can certainly view The Wolverine as absolving the previous Wolverine film’s many sins. First and foremost, the film operates on a less-grandiose scale, with a stripped-down narrative (and cast, thank God) and a much greater focus of who the main character is and what the whole film is all about. Unlike the previous installment, The Wolverine takes place in the present-day, picking up a few years after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. Logan is bereaved after killing his lady-love Jean Grey, and now spends his days living in the woods and fighting off asshole rednecks who poison their arrows and try to kill grizzly bears. A Japanese mutant by the name of Yukio appears to take Logan back to Tokyo on behalf of her benefactor Yashida, a soldier Logan saved while being held as a POW during the bombing of Nagasaki. Yashida is dying, and offers Logan a chance to swap his mutant abilities for a normal aging process through some scientific mumbo-jumbo, thus giving Logan the “gift” of a normal life in payment for him saving his life all those years ago. Of course, things are not quite that simple, as before long ninja, Yakuza and Yashida’s grand-daughter Mariko get involved in the proceedings.

            From its opening moments, The Wolverine systematically does what Origins tried to do, only better. Echoing that movie’s credit sequence which traced Wolverine’s journey as a soldier throughout various wars through history (while also echoing the very first X-Men), here we open in a very-well done scene that recreates the panic and horror in Nagasaki the day the second atom-bomb dropped and decimated the town. It’s a gripping opening, and one that nicely sets the tone for the subsequent movie, which takes its main source of inspiration from the Wolverine miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. Darren Aronofsky was originally set to direct, and while the resulting film from replacement director James Mangold isn’t nearly as idiosyncratic as one would expect from the maker of Black Swan and The Fountain, the film still has a certain degree of authenticity often lacking in these big-budget superhero films. First of all, it’s incredibly low-key: there’s no citywide destruction or overblown villains (well, at least until the very end… but we’ll get to that), and all the action scenes feel more personal as a result. Logan isn’t fighting for the fate of the world or his city, but rather his own refreshingly mortal soul. I may be overreacting to the nice change-of-pace, but seeing a superhero movie play out so well on a smaller scale is quite rewarding, and something I wish other studios would put into practice for their own films.

            The cast is also quite refreshingly made up almost entirely of Asian performers - aside from the title role, of course, of which Hugh Jackman still owns completely and tonally. If in the previous films he looked bored or tired, he more than makes up for it here. Of course, this is the first film since X2 to really test his mettle in the role, and honestly the first one to truly dive into the character of Logan with such depth and precision. By this point, the series has thankfully done away with the “man of mystery”/amnesia thing, and settled the character into a sort of lost soul trying to find his purpose again in the world - a purpose he finds in Japan with the lovely Mariko, played very nicely by first-time actress Tao Okamoto, who manages to be a strong character who isn’t “empowered” in the sense of doing boy things like fighting, but instead plays the lead female role as - who’da thunk it - feminine, without sacrificing one bit of strength to the male lead in the process. Quite an impressive feat, considering the role and the way such roles often play out in stories like this.

            Rila Fukushima gets the more traditional, badass woman warrior type role, but again, the actress succeeds primarily through playing a character, and not a type. Fukushima’s Yukio is a smaller part, in the grand scheme of things, but the way the actress and filmmakers present the character, she very nearly steals the movie with each successive scene. And on the villain side… well, if you’ve got Hiroyuki Sanada in your movie, then the ball is yours to drop when it comes to delivering, as the veteran Japanese star never brings anything less than perfection to any movie lucky enough to have him. Fortunately, his role here as Yashida’s traitorous son Shingen gives the actor plenty to do, although it is a bit disappointing when he drops out of the film with nearly thirty minutes left to go.

            And that’s where we get to the only real flaw of the film: a slightly goofy conclusion that sees the Wolverine take on a gigantic robo-samurai. Now, ordinarily, I would be cheering on the inclusion of gigantic robo-samurai to just about any movie, but coming at the tail end of one that has thus far been so grounded and scaled-back, it feels a bit disharmonious. The action preceding that is largely top-notch - The Wolverine is essentially a crime/martial arts movie, and has set-pieces befitting of the genre, with a lot of practical and stunt-heavy choreography, so when the “Silver Samurai” shows up at the end and everything gets pixilated, it can’t help but let the air out of the momentum the film has managed to build thus far. But even more than that, the decision to have the elder Yashida turn out to be the big bad of the movie feels a bit wrong-headed, but I suppose it makes about as much sense as the whole “stealing powers” subplot does, ultimately (which is to say, "not much").     

            Still, the film finally delivers a scene of Wolverine slicing up a bunch of ninjas, so if nothing else, almost every fan should be happy for at least that. Fortunately, the rest of The Wolverine is pretty great in its own right. And not filled to the brim with needless mutants who add nothing to the proceedings and are there, I suspect, for the sole purpose of selling a few more action figures. In that regard, for an X-film, that makes it a minor masterpiece.

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