The Wolverine

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While a marked improvement over 2009’s forgettable X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hugh Jackman’s latest outing—his 6th as the snarling, talon-fingered mutant Logan—is a middling picture, welcomely understated as summer action pictures go. But that doesn’t exactly make it good.

Directed by James Mangold, the expert helmer of Walk the Line, Cop Land and 3:10 to Yuma, The Wolverine is hardly the prototype for a superhero picture—it contains scant action and takes its time, and then some, getting to a third act showdown that will likely dissatisfy genre fans. It has a solid set-up and so-so conclusion, and a ponderous middle section that bloats the film’s running time to 129 minutes and proves a real drag on the pacing.

Trying to keep up with the X-Men timelines is a fool’s errand—the next installment will even include time travel—but The Wolverine takes place after the death of soul mate, Jean Gray (the ageless Famke Janssen).  In this installment, we first meet Logan/Wolverine deep in a dream state, reliving his survival of the World War II atomic bomb drop on Nagasaki, where POW Logan saves the life of Japanese soldier Yashida (Ken Yamamura).  It’s a terrific scene of sound and fury and light, but the picture goes downhill from here.

Modern-day Logan scavenges in the Alaskan wilderness and when not dreaming about being reunited with Jean, pines for a dying bear before doling out comeuppance to rednecks in the local pool hall.  It’s here that he meets Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a pink-haired waif with steel fists who recruits him back to Japan for a final goodbye to her grandfather, present day Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi).

Things get interesting with the arrival of Yukio’s sister, Mariko (Tao Oakamoto), a family inheritance and a lot of double-crossing, including the introduction of a vampy mutant named Viper (a wily Svetlana Khodchenkova), who does a number on Logan that diminishes his invincibility.  This vulnerability opens him up to potential love with Mariko. But is this enough to heal the scars of Jean’s demise?

Credit goes to screenwriters Mark Bomback, Scott Frank and Christopher McQuarrie for settling down and attempting to add depth to Logan while making him more human, but there’s a plodding pace and obviousness to the picture’s romance that doesn’t quite work.

And then there’s the problem, for me at least, of Wolverine himself, who remains expressively one-note much of the time—he broods, snarls and glowers, all with his shirt off, a sight which, no offense to pumped up Jackman, is beginning to feel like the emperor’s new clothes in this franchise, eye candy doing the heavy lifting.

Mangold manages a few decent action sequences, including one atop a speeding train and another with a giant steel robot, but The Wolverine is a quieter, gentler action movie—not a bad thing if we actually cared for any of the characters.

To me, these movies have a law of diminishing returns, and while I loved the marvelously acted X-Men: First Class, a thrilling, classy movie with a great performance from Michael Fassbender as a young Magneto coming into his powers, Wolverine, in his invincibility (you always know that no matter what happens to him, he will regenerate; there’s nothing truly at stake) has become a real bore.

When not flitting back and forth to spectral imaginings of Jean and the afterlife, the movie also employs a subtext about the erosion of a modern, Japanese family, where bonds of time-honored tradition and respect are undone by greed and money, arranged marriages falling away and family betrayals piling up in a clear commentary on East meets West.

Jackman, a great actor in any regard and coming off the high of his Oscar-nominated triumph as Jean Valjean in last Les Miserables, is capable of much yet rarely given a substantive role—anyone who saw Broadway’s The Boy from Oz knows of his virtuoso toolkit—and Logan/Wolverine just isn’t it, a role that never takes him the distance.

The Wolverine is handsomely shot, moderately scaled and watchable, just not particularly engaging.

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