Review: Hugh Jackman makes a nice return to form in James Mangold’s ‘The Wolverine’

From the very beginning, Fox’s “X-Men” series has played fast and loose with the source material, and enjoying the films has required the viewer to set aside any preconceived notions about the characters and the world. When Bryan Singer made the first “X-Men,” this current wave of superhero movies was still in early days, and it seemed like the key to making a comic book film was somehow muting the more overtly “comic-book” elements and making things “gritty” and “real.” Looking back at that first film now, I’m amazed by just how much it feels like the film just barely holds together, carried along by a certain excited energy and by the charisma of the cast.

The one breakout star from that film was Hugh Jackman, who was not Fox’s first choice for the role. I thought it was evident immediately that he was not the same Wolverine that I’d grown up on, but that he brought a great, no nonsense gruffness to the role that made it okay that he’s about a foot and a half taller than the character. The attitude was right, and the first time his claws went “SNIKT,” it felt like we had turned a corner in terms of comic-books on the big screen.

Now, thirteen years later, here we are with Hugh Jackman playing the part for the sixth time, and at this point, it feels like he is very possessive of the role. Fox has treated him like the cornerstone of the whole “X-Men” universe from that first film on, and Jackman’s become a key player in helping decide where the character is heading. He has been very vocal about wanting to adapt Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s acclaimed story arc in which Logan went to Japan, and now with the help of screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, James Mangold has finally brought that story to life, and Jackman seems more engaged by the role than he has in years.

The film opens with a scene that reminded me a lot of the sequence that kicked off that first film with Magneto at the death camp. Here, it’s the tail end of WWII, and Logan (Jackman) has been captured by the Japanese. They’re holding him in a well in a rural area, and when the perfect quiet of the morning is shattered by the spotting of incoming bombers, everyone bolts into action. Only one soldier, Yashida (Ken Yamamura), spares a thought for Logan, unlocking his cage and telling him he’s free. Yashida goes to join the other officers, who are committing seppuku, but when it’s his turn, he hesitates. He watches a strange bomb fall on the city across the harbor, and when a mushroom cloud erupts, he is frozen by the sight. It is Logan who grabs him, runs him back to the well, and then shields him from the blast’s effects using his own body. When Yashida finally looks, he is shocked to see Logan scorched, burnt, his hair gone, horribly disfigured. He is even more shocked when all of the damage starts to re-knit itself, leaving Logan no worse for the wear.

When we catch up with Logan in the modern day, though, he’s seemingly unchanged, physically the same. Inside, though, he is as damaged as he’s ever been, still grappling with the emotional fallout from killing Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen) to save the world. When he dreams, he sees Jean each night, and each night he vows to her that he will never hurt anyone again. Even as he’s rocked by these visitations, this haunted voice from his past, he finds himself drawn into violence, even living in the middle of nowhere. He is incapable of staying out of conflict when he sees some wrong being done. Before he really falls of the wagon and kills someone, he is approached by Yukio (Rila Fukushima, or as I like to call her, the Japanese Christina Ricci), who turns out to be a trusted employee of the much-older-now Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi). He’s dying, and he has a plan for how he can get what he wants and Logan can have what he wants: a normal life again.

It seems like once you’ve made a few films in a superhero series, you have one of a few moves you can make with a new film. You can keep piling on more and more villains, or you can figure out a way to have your hero lose or renounce his powers. It never lasts, of course, but it seems like one of the few tricks filmmakers know to try to mix it up for the hero. In Logan’s case, his mutant power of healing is the thing that Yashida is interested in, and he makes it sound at first like it’s a benevolent offer, an attempt to fix something that has tortured Logan for decades.

Quickly, Logan finds himself caught up in plots he barely understands when he meets Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who is set to inherit Yashida’s entire empire when he dies. There are numerous agendas in play, though, involving a mysterious doctor named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), as well as Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee) and Shingen Yashida (Hiroyuki Sanada), and by the time Logan figures out whose side he is on, he may already be too late.

While the script is definitely built on the framework of the Miller/Claremont run of issues, it is not a direct adaptation. Mariko and Yukio benefit the most from the adaptation, with both of them given more weight and with a stronger sense of connection between the two of them. One of the things that works best about setting the film in Japan is that it finally gives Logan enemies who he can fight with his blades without feeling guilty about it. Mangold doesn’t try to hammer you with non-stop action, but when he does stage a fight scene, he works hard to try and make it count. The loss of Logan’s powers is more a red herring than anything else.  Ultimately, the movie deals with Logan’s realization that he will never fully escape his role as a weapon, and instead of running from himself, he learns how to aim that rage at the right target.

If Hugh Jackman was not doing strong work, none of the rest of it would matter, but his dedication to the character is still obvious, and he brings some nice shades to the way he’s playing Logan now. One of the things that has always felt underexplored in the films is the idea of Logan as a nearly immortal figure. Even if he doesn’t lose the people close to him to acts of violence, he still has to face a life where he stays the same and everyone else grows old and disappears. Watching him grapple with what that means is the strongest thread in the film, and Jackman handles it well. I also really like the work that Rila Fukushima does in the film. It’s hard to believe she had not been given formal weapons training earlier in her life, because she handles herself with a great natural sense of comfort in the fight scenes, making Yukio a very convincing badass.

I do think there are some missteps here. I like the idea of what we see happen in the third act of the film, but I’m not sure I buy the way it’s executed. I think Viper is a strangely undercooked character whose powers are unclearly defined, meaning it’s hard to know what to expect from her in various scenes. But for each of the missteps, there are a handful of things they got completely right, and on the whole, it’s one of the better superhero films that Fox has made. I would urge you to stay seated at the end of the film, since Fox wisely uses the end of this film to bait the hook for “X-Men: Days Of Future Past.”

While I’ve been less interested in the films in this series for a while now, “The Wolverine” feels like the course correction that they needed to make, a refocusing that once again makes me interested to see what happens with these characters.

“The Wolverine” arrives in theaters July 26, 2013.