The Wolverine isn’t a great movie, but it’s better than we’ve come to expect, and at least when it screws up, it doesn’t do it in the predictable ways. We don’t have to watch any landmarks explode. The villain isn’t trying to take over the world, and Wolverine isn’t trying to save it. The climactic battle doesn’t result in the deaths of thousands of faceless bystanders and wasted binary code, and there’s hardly any broken glass (just gouged metal and those Japanese paper walls getting torn up). When it’s violent, it’s violent up close, with blood and guts and one-liners (Wolverine even says the F-word! …Wait, how the hell did this get a PG-13?). The action is about the characters, not the scenery. There isn’t a ton of expensive CGI you have to pretend you think looks real (unless you count the claws*), and the sound effects are allowed to do their job without overbearing music making everything feel like a bloodless flashback. Best of all, Wolverine never has to destroy a giant laser pointed at Earth or even a portal to another dimension! In fact, some of the action scenes are pretty fantastic. The non-action scenes… eh…
When The Wolverine is bad, it tends toward bad-weird, rather than bad-boring, and comic book movies were desperately missing some weirdness. I’ll take bad-weird over dull any day. But… man, what an odd movie. For instance (MILD SPOILER ALERT), did you know Wolverine has to break up with a dead chick in this movie? It’s true.
We open in flashback, with Wolverine the POW, trapped down a well being used as his makeshift cell in WWII Nagasaki. No one ever brings up Nagasaki for any reason other than as place-that-got-bombed, so you know what’s about to happen. We see the Bockscar fly slowly across the clear blue sky in the distance, and like The Watchmen, there’s something extremely cool about seeing watershed moments of history eerily rendered in vivid color on a sunny day. As the plane flies overhead, the Japanese captor, Yashida, starts freeing his prisoners. You’d think he could just use his keys, but nope, he cuts them all free using his fancy samurai sword. Which seems borderline racist, like an Italian guy whacking their handcuffs off with a salami, but whatever. As Fat Man starts its 43-second freefall, Yashida jumps into the well at Wolverine’s urging, and Wolvie covers him up with some metal stuff and saves him from the explosion while the bomb nukes the town’s fridge.
Fast-forward 60-some years and Wolverine is living in the Yukon wilderness, occasionally venturing into town to make eyes at all the ladies from behind his big mountain man beard and generally making the world hell for bear poachers. By the way, can’t action heroes ever live in seclusion without growing a giant beard? The Unabomber look is probably drawing more attention to them at this point. And if you need a razor, hey, maybe check your goddamn hand.
So anyway, that’s where a punky little Japanese girl with a lightbulb for a skull finds our hero. She wants to take him on a private jet back to Japan, where her boss, Yashida, now a rich man, is on his death bed and wants to thank the hirsute gaijin who saved his life all those years ago.
After the requisite “GRRR, IT’S AN HONOR TO MEET THE WOLVERINE” “GRRR, THAT’S NOT WHO I AM ANYMORE”, Wolverine is at Yashida’s deathbed, accepting a gift of a samurai sword (guess which one). Soon after, he’s at Yashida’s funeral, where someone’s trying to kill Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko, who Wolverine decides to protect because she’s pretty. The rest of the movie consists of Wolverine trying to protect Mariko while unraveling who might be trying to kill her and why. Other players include a jilted ninja with his own foot clan, a bitter Yashida heir, a corrupt horny government man, a hot mutant with a poison tongue, a giant metal samurai, and a dead Jean Grey who pops up from time to time to give Wolverine advice. Well, actually, she doesn’t so much give him advice as she does bust his balls about him not being dead yet and try to tempt him up to mutant Heaven with her rockin’ ghost cleavage. Yeesh, not even death stops these broads from a-naggin’. And you want to ignore them, but you can’t, because their boobs look too good. (*air guitar*)
In any case, here are some things I learned while watching The Wolverine:
Ladies love Wolverine.
If Wolverine meets a lady, any lady, under any circumstances, she’s definitely going to fall instantly in love with him, even if he was friends with her grandpa. Because hey, claws. Plus, ladies are all emotional and stuff. They can’t help but moistening when they see a broody guy with big penis veins in his biceps.
Samurai swords are magic.
They can cut anything. You know those princess cut diamonds you see on TV? Pretty sure samurais do those.
Ninjas are like roaches.
If you see one, there’s probably a nest of a thousand nearby (if you want to get rid of them, you have to take out their egg sacs).
Bad people are always dicks when you first meet them.
No one ever smiles in Wolverine’s face and then is mean to him later. It’s always “Hey, ugly, f*ck your mother!” Gee, I wonder if that was a bad guy.
Doing flips helps you fight good.
Need to attack someone? Do a flip first. Now you have the upper hand! Hi-yah!
In Japan, only the Yakuza use guns.
Everyone else fights with swords and bows and arrows. These Japanese, I don’t know if you know this about them, but they’re very traditional.
When Japanese women forcibly shave and bathe you, they still leave your big sideburns, because you’re Wolverine.
His hair grows back if it gets burned by a bomb, but not if a Japanese lady cuts it for him.
Wolverine never has his own blood on his claws.
You comic book nerds will probably have an explanation for this, but Wolverine’s claws cut through the skin of his hands, don’t they? (In one movie I remember him saying it hurts every time the claws come out). So shouldn’t he always have blood on them, from the knives stabbing through his hands? That’d be kind of badass, by the way, if he was constantly dripping his own blood on everyone as he was fighting them.
Wolverine hates double beds.
No matter how many times Wolverine wakes up from a nightmare with claws in full extension, ready to cut whichever lady he’s sharing a bed with that night to ribbons, no one ever thinks, “Hey, maybe it’s time for separate beds? That might cut down on the whole possibility-of-you-stabbing-me-in-the-heart-while-you-sleep thing.” But no, you can’t keep Wolverine away from the ladies, short of turning the hose on him.
For the most part, director James Mangold exhibits the same skills he displayed in 3:10 to Yuma – a knack for keeping the action intense and personal. I mean, sure, there’s some silly karate stuff, elements of parkour, and bow and arrow used far more than basic logic would dictate, but Mangold’s action has a real thump and crunch to it. There’s no giant CGI smashing set piece shot solely for the trailer (and thank God). But there is a fight/chase sequence set on top of a speeding bullet train that’s easily the best action sequence we’ve seen this year, if not the last few. Mangold builds the intensity without shortcuts, using long takes and a minimum of camera moves, proving you don’t need quick cuts and shakey cam to simulate adrenaline, just creativity and composition. Holy shit, how refreshing!
Unfortunately, he displays another tendency present in 3:10 to Yuma, to let logic slip away from him in the last act when he’s rushing to the finish. I have some pointed questions to ask about the final scene and how it plays fast and loose with the rules of its own story and how they apply differently to different characters, but we’ll save that for another, nerdier, more spoilery discussion. And while The Wolverine got pretty silly and dumb in the final act, it was never boring. The weirdness of it all won the day. I’m willing to accept a certain amount plot holes and hackneyed stereotypes for action, but only if the action doesn’t suck, and it mostly doesn’t suck here. High praise, I know. This is what happens when you see an action movie every week.
Be sure to stay through the credits, there’s a post-credits teaser you won’t want to miss.
*Oh, and a big CGI bear. But that wasn’t distracting so much as hilarious.