Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"The Wolverine" Review, or How To Claw Your Way to the Middle

Jackman shows us why he can never enjoy a candy bar.
It's been a tough summer. I mean, think about it. Have any of the movies, even the big hits, been beloved by anyone? Sure, we've had good movies (Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness) and bad (Man of Steel), but not one that has really stepped up and come to define the summer.
There's so much money invested into these films now that unless they make over half a billion (billion!) dollars, they are regarded as somewhat of a failure. Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel are certainly huge hits, but have they really come to define the summer in the same way that The Avengers did last year? Or The Dark Knight in 2008? I think the answer's no. The reaction to those films have been divisive enough that you couldn't really say that either is THE summer film of 2013.

Part of the issue is desperation. Blockbusters reek of desperation these days. You know when you go out for a night with your buddies and one guy keeps insisting, "This is going to be the best night ever!" and then you wind up eating a slice of pizza downtown at eleven pm? It's because you can't will an amazing event into being. And you can't manufacture a true blockbuster by just piling on the scale. You need to actually capture people's imagination with story, not just dazzle them with things going boom.
Am I implying that The Wolverine will be this elusive cultural blockbuster? No. Oh, no. It's not good enough for that. But it does have its heart in the right place in that it tries to put a good story at the centre of the film, rather than empty spectacle; a story that focuses on putting its titular character though some kind of journey, no matter how shallow that might be.

Hugh Jackman returns as Logan, the clawed ageless mutant whose life is defined by a shadowy past and berserker rages. When we join him here, he's at his lowest point. Following having killed the love of his life, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, who pops up in some dream sequences), Logan has left the X-Men and is living in Northern Canada in drunken isolation. He is eventually found by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a young mutant who persuades Logan to come to Tokyo with her to pay his respects to a dying acquaintance. From there, the plot kicks in and while I won't spoil anything here, I will say that Logan manages to lose his healing abilities, making him mortal and truly vulnerable for the first time in his life. Embroiled in battles with Yakuza thugs and ninja assassins, Logan is forced to protect an innocent woman (Tao Okamoto) while confronting his ambivalent feelings about his own mortality.

There's a number of things to like about The Wolverine, and the first is that it doesn't have that desperate feeling I mentioned earlier. It's not trying to depict an end of the world threat or show cities being toppled. It's focused on telling a personal story about Logan, and putting him through a challenge, and I found that simplicity refreshing. While the personal journey is a dark one, the movie is not relentlessly grim; there's a streak of fun and humour running through it that keeps the film from taking itself too seriously. A lot of this has to do with Jackman, who continues to nail Logan. It's the role that made him a star, and you can see why. The guy is a badass, yes, but Jackman understands the rough-hewn nobility and soulfulness that has made the character resonate so well in the comics. When he scraps with thugs atop a speeding bullet train, or faces a gauntlet of ninjas on a snowy street, he delineates the best quality of Logan; whatever anyone dishes out, he can take it. Though he can heal, he still can be hurt.

All of this is not to say The Wolverine is a great movie. It's barely a good movie, frankly. The plot is needlessly complicated with intrigue. The movie would have been more exciting with the main plot of Wolverine getting embroiled in a family power struggle involving the Yakuza and a clan of Ninjas. But when you add a mutant geneticist called Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and her mysterious attempts to steal Logan's healing powers and the Silver Samurai and a sci-fi angle at the end, things get silly. They could have done something new if they just made it a crime thriller with a super-hero at the centre, but the sci-fi climax is familiar ground and doesn't work nearly as well. It's also too shiny and bright in its direction and design. The grounded first half of the story could have done with some atmosphere, which the film is sorely missing.
But The Wolverine is a fun movie. Remember in X2 when Logan goes off on the soldiers breaking into the X-Mansion? Remember how fun that was? This is an hour and a half of that. And that's not a bad thing. James Mangold directs it well, and he can handle the quieter scenes so that they don't bring the movie to a thudding stop. All this, plus a mid-credits scene that sets up the next chapter in the X-Universe, and I for one am eager to see where it goes next.

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