The Wolverine (2013)
I grew up in the 90’s watching the X-Men animated series, and that’s what my main knowledge and fandom of the property stems from. It’s been sorry to say that the live action movies have, to me, failed to be remotely as faithful. Simply said, I have had a number of issues with all of the previous films of this franchise, and I was skeptical about The Wolverine going into it. Color me pleasantly surprised – I REALLY liked this movie. I have barely a major issue to levy against this film, directed excellently by James Mangold. While Wolverine has been a very central character in all the previous films, save for First Class, this film actually puts forth the honest effort to make him more than just an action bad ass. Some might find the film less than exciting, but for me, this steers this character into the right direction.
After the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has become a vagrant lost and detached from society until he is sought out by Ichiro Yashida, the man whose life Logan saved at Nagasaki in 1945. This now powerful businessman seeks to repay this debt to Logan by absolving him of an unending life via his mutant healing factor. Regardless of consent, Wolverine is left physically vulnerable by secretive forces as he attempts to protect Mariko, Yashida’s granddaughter and heir to his empire, from the Yakuza and a band of deadly ninjas. Wolverine is now pushed to his physical and emotional limits as he confronts not only lethal samurai steel but also his inner struggle against his own immortality to emerge more powerful than ever before.
This is one of those reviews where I’ll address my minor issues with the movie first before delving into what I very much enjoyed. The Wolverine has a rather good tone keeping things mainly dramatically based, but it does inject some humor and levity. However, it possibly could have pulled back in a few places. Stuff like Logan and Mariko hiding out in a hotel which ends up being a “love hotel” where couples go to get it on. Some humor comes out of this which is rather gratuitous. The first half of the movie has these moments where there’s already been a fine balance of levity and drama, but adds in just a little more humor that makes it feel a tad extraneous. It throws that balance off just enough to slightly detract from the dramatic progression of the film, but by the halfway point, these issues evaporated.
Also, I wouldn’t begrudge this movie if it intentionally disavowed X-Men Origins: Wolverine from its continuity. I say this because in that film we clearly see that Wolverine’s memories were robbed from him via an adamantium bullet to the head. However, in this film, Wolverine easily remembers events from Nagasaki, 1945, more than thirty years before his memory loss. While the previous X-Men films have shown him recovering memories, particularly from the Weapon X program, it’s a bit of a shady area as to how he is able to so clearly remember these events. Even then, if you went by the continuity of Origins, he was still going by the name James Howlett at that point in time, but Yashida knows him only as Logan, which he doesn’t adopt until the 1970’s. This franchise’s continuity is extremely shoddy, and it’s that reason why I both eager and skeptical about how next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past will possibly resolve these continuity issues.
However, a more significant issue is very valid. Wolverine’s healing factor is repressed for the bulk of this film where his wounds heal at the rate of a normal human being. Yet, he is constantly extending and retracting his claws with not a drop of blood or sight of a wound on his knuckles. I did buy many X-Men comics in the 90’s including X-Men #25 where Magneto ripped the adamantium from Wolverine’s body, and his healing factor is overloaded to where to stops working. Thus, his knuckles continually bleed out every time he unsheathes his bone claws, and he keeps them wrapped in bandages. I can understand that the PG-13 rating would never allow Wolverine going around bleeding profusely in graphic fashion through most of the runtime, but it is a serious oversight. It didn’t take me out of the film at all, but it’s a definite flaw in the film’s logic that I felt should be addressed.
Now, onto the good stuff. Undoubtedly, this is Hugh Jackman’s most dimensional performance as Wolverine. The film takes him on a journey from this man living in the wilderness, cut off from everything after Jean Grey’s death, and vowing never to hurt another person. We get an arc for Logan where he rediscovers his purpose, and finds a reason for living. He reinvests himself in a reason to fight for someone else, and become that honorable, yet animalistic warrior that he once was. Jackman does an excellent job showing the rugged anger early on, but he contrasts that with the vulnerable, physically weakened Wolverine. There’s a great balance in his performance that really shines through, likely due to James Mangold’s smart direction. I also like that despite having no healing factor, Wolverine still proves to be one of the toughest bad asses on the planet. He gets shot up, slashed, and beaten, but does he ever push forward with everything he’s got. And of course, Jackman is in the best shape of his life here as he finally achieved the lean, muscular physique he always wanted for Wolverine. He is totally ripped, and that creates a real raw, intimidating presence. The fight scenes are some of the best he’s ever done as this character.
Tapping into the vulnerability of Logan are two women. The first is Yukio who seeks him out, and seems to have a great deal in common with him. They are both warriors who have lost loved ones in their pasts, and are brought together by Yashida as wayward souls. Yukio is able to keep Logan on his toes as she is as smart as she is deadly, but has formed a bond of trust and respect with him. Rila Fukushima does a very, very good job in this role handling all the physical demands amazingly well, and making this a character who is enjoyable as well as dimensional.
Mariko is the one who peels back the vulnerability of Logan’s heart. While there is never an overt romantic connection between them, the film builds an intimacy with these two. They get very deeply involved with each other learning the pain and love that have affected them. Logan is driven to protect her at every cost, and the emotional bond is built up with a lot of subtlety and grace. I really found this to be the main cog towards exploring Logan. Through Mariko, we see the change in him from the lost, fractured man to the fiercely determined warrior. The chemistry between Jackman and Tao Okamoto is really sweet and endearing as the two characters grow closer.
I feel this film is filled with a strong set of characters that are well cast. Will Yun Lee impressed me thoroughly as Harada, a ninja and archer who has dubious allegiances, and demonstrates some amazing physical feats early on. When the Yakuza are chasing Logan and Mariko through the Tokyo streets, he’s jumping and flipping from one rooftop to another and picking guys off with his bow and arrow. To me, he essentially put Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye to shame with just that one sequence. Beyond that, Lee simply grabbed me right from the start with his edge and presence. Plus, Harada has a really enjoyable arc as his loyalties and honor are certainly in question as he is associated with certain underhanded individuals, but has the best of intentions.
There are many characters that have their own personal sense of honor, however misguided it might be, and it creates this very strong gravity to each character. Shingen Yashia, Mariko’s crime boss father, is really damn good exercising authority and conviction with a really imposing presence. Ichiro Yashida is also solidly portrayed with a more honest breadth of honor, but he still has some turns to show for himself later on. These characters all have depth and dimension making them intriguing and engaging.
However, the femme fatale villain of Viper was possibly the least captivating character. The character is very well portrayed by Svetlana Khodchenkova giving her plenty of juicy material to wrap this venomous character up in, but ultimately, she’s just a hired villain with little purpose or motivation of her own. So, she’s not nearly as interesting as all these characters who are enveloped in honor, tradition, culture, greed, and betrayal. Their stories are much more strongly interconnected because there is family involved, and it is all tangled up in a treacherous web of deceit. Regardless, there’s not a single weak link in this cast, and they all put forth great efforts that truly impressed me. I cared about so many of these characters due to the strong performances behind them, and a solid writing by Scott Frank, Mark Bomback, and the uncredited Christopher McQuarrie.
What I really found refreshing in The Wolverine is that is doesn’t feel the need to have to throw action sequences down your throat to engage you. I believe some may disagree and find the film lacking, but it really hit the spot for me. Like I said, these characters are compelling enough all on their own for me, and it is quite a while before we get a real action sequence here. The film invests you in following Logan, and seeing what kind of man he is now. It peers you into his mind and pained heart as its central focus, and introduces action where the story requires it. Especially with superhero films, we tend to see action thrown at us right from the beginning telling you that action is the central focus of this movie. Director James Mangold tells you otherwise with how this film begins and progresses. It has important substance to introduce you to so that when the action occurs, you can be invested in the danger faced by these characters, and that is highly admirable in my view.
And the action here is rather stellar. From the trailers, I thought the bullet train sequence would not be very good, but I was so proven wrong. I found it exceptionally well constructed especially with how Logan and his combatants have to keep dodging the overhead structures that keep flying over their heads. Sometimes they duck, sometimes they jump over top, and sometimes, an unfortunate adversary goes on a very rough flight goodbye. There’s more to it than that, and every clever element just made it work very well for me. While it is all clearly CGI settings and backgrounds, there was still a sense of danger involved considering this is a train rocketing along at hundreds of miles per hour.
There are also some excellent fight scenes. I have to love me some samurai sword fights mixed in with perilous acrobatic martial arts maneuvers. When Wolverine faces off with Shingen, claws versus sword, it’s really the moment where the bad ass hero that we know re-emerges, and it’s a great moment and pay-off. There is plenty of slashing and impaling of Yakuza upon Wolverine’s claws early on. Now, I didn’t think of it at the time, but really, Wolverine never gets a full-on bezerker battle with ninjas. I know that’s appalling because that’s practically the signature moment every die hard fan would want to see. There is a confrontation leading into the third act, but there’s very little close range combat in it for Wolverine to start ripping at ninjas. Also, the use of blood on his claws is rather inconsistent. Sometimes, we’ll see blood on them after he impales a guy, but most times, we either don’t get a good look at them or there’s simply nothing shown. James Mangold did do an interview this past week hinting at a bloodier, more violent unrated cut of the film on Blu Ray, but we’ll have to wait and see. He supposedly did remove a more elaborate fight between Wolverine and the ninjas. Why, I couldn’t tell you.
I honestly think this is the best score I’ve ever heard from Marco Beltrami. Up until now, I don’t think he’s ever done anything this diverse or exceptional. He really captures the flavor and feel of Japan in subtle ways throughout his score. He never seemed to go for anything easy or expected in that realm. It’s a very fine piece of work that also highlights some great moments with due weight.
The cinematography is indeed damn good. I had desired a Wolverine film that was dark, gritty, and raw from when Darren Aronofsky was attached, but Mangold and his cinematographer did a lot to make this more polished look work. The Wolverine gives us a strong, vibrant color palette, and the nighttime scenes have a pleasing neo noir quality. It gives the film some mood where needed. I especially found some beauty in the Wolverine / Shingen fight with his dim blue backlight, and the ninjas converging upon Wolverine in the snowy landscape. The action sequences are essentially filmed very well keeping things steady and competent.
I can definitely say that the digital effects of The Wolverine are superior to those of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Surely, there are places where it’s not superb, but it’s fairly on par with your general effects-heavy summer film. Believe me, I saw worse CGI in the trailers before this film, but there were areas for improvement at times. Frankly, I can forgive some undercooked CGI if the film surrounding it is damn good enough. That very much applies here because this is exponentially superior to its Gavin Hood-directed predecessor on every level.
The Wolverine might not reach the level of greatness, but I feel it is an almost perfectly solid piece of work. The film takes its time to explore its characters, and give us a sense of depth and emotion with its title character. Even the dream sequences with him and Jean Grey are very poignantly handled starting out as something that haunts Logan, but slowly reflecting his ability to absolve himself of the burden he has at the film’s beginning. As you can likely tell, I very much respect and like this film’s focus on character instead of action. It also doesn’t overload us with more and more mutants, trying to cram every last cameo it can into the runtime. It takes the characters it needs, and builds the story around them tightly. I can only imagine how insane X-Men: Days of Future Past is going to be with somewhere in the range fifteen to twenty characters populating the story. Speaking of such things, stick around for a few minutes after the end credits begin. There is a special scene that you will certainly not want to miss that sets up next year’s big sequel.