The Marvel team has recast the Incredible Hulk three times in recent years, but when it comes to its most popular hothead, Wolverine, there’s only one actor fit to wear the claws: Hugh Jackman returns for his sixth screen appearance as the adamantium-reinforced superhero in James Mangold’s smart, Japan-set “The Wolverine,” an entertaining and surprisingly existential digression from his usual X-Men exploits. Though Wolvie comes across a bit world-weary and battle-worn by now, Jackman is in top form, taking the opportunity to test the character’s physical and emotional extremes. Fans might’ve preferred bigger action or more effects, but Mangold does them one better, recovering the soul of a character whose immortality left something to be desired.
Though the majority of the Marvel portfolio belongs to Disney these days, Fox still controls the rights to the Fantastic Four, Wolverine and his X-Men brethren. While hardly on par with Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” trilogy, this movie represents Fox’s attempt to repair damage done to the most iconic of those characters by Gavin Hood’s silly “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” solo outing (which didn’t hurt the box office, but weakened audiences’ faith in how he might subsequently be treated onscreen).
With Wolverine’s backstory clearly established, screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank are free to indulge an atmospheric one-off, returning to the character’s doomed romance with Mariko Yashida, a member of a powerful Japanese clan — the fan-favorite story arc cooked up by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller back in 1982. Set sometime after the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” the film opens with Jackman’s Logan sulking somewhere in the Yukon wilds. Having sworn off his violent ways, he identifies more with a feral grizzly than with any of the sport hunters he encounters in town, setting up concerns (whether he can overcome his animal nature) and symbols (including a poisoned-tipped arrow) that resurface later in significant ways.
When careless humans kill the bear, Wolverine flies off the handle, only to be rescued by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a triangle-faced pixie with red-velvet hair who whisks him away to Japan, where a character from Logan’s past wants to relieve him of his mutant healing ability. Saved from the atomic blast that destroyed Nagasaki, Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee) craves the immortality that Wolverine considers his curse, and suggests a trade that would allow him to reunite with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who appears to him in visions and represents a poetic connection to past films.
It takes more than half an hour for “The Wolverine” to unleash its first action scene, but when it comes, the strike proves elegantly choreographed and worthy of the Hong Kong films that clearly inspired it, as a squad of yakuza descend on Harada’s funeral, attempting to assassinate his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). The next scene rivals any confrontation in recent Asian cinema, as Wolverine combats a group of yakuza thugs atop a speeding bullet train, and it’s a thrill to see Jackman adding these new fighting styles to his character’s repertoire.
Wolverine emerges victorious, of course, but with a crucial difference: His self-suturing wounds no longer heal themselves. Harada’s nurse (Svetlana Khodchenkova, an award-winning Russian actress completely out of place here) has done something to impair Logan’s abilities. In the process, the razor-clawed character goes from being merely cool to being actually interesting, since there’s a genuine risk that he could die and/or be overpowered while trying to protect Mariko. Wolverine bleeds.
Even better than this newfound physical weakness is the emotional vulnerability “The Wolverine” allows Jackman to explore. Logan’s self-imposed isolation reveals unexpected new layers of his psychology and suggests that once these iconic characters have been established onscreen, they can be fleshed out in standalone films, just as seemingly non-plot-advancing episodes of “The Sopranos” or “Breaking Bad” deepen our understanding of those series’ complicated protagonists.
As it happens, “The Wolverine” boasts one of the best pulp-inspired scripts yet. It’s still full of corny dialogue (you know, those punchy one-liners conceived to fit in tiny talk bubbles above the characters’ heads), but there’s a genuine elegance to the way it establishes Logan’s tortured condition and slowly brings the character around to recovering his heroic potential, methodically setting up and paying off ideas as it unfolds.
Of course, a script is just a blueprint, and it’s still up to Mangold and his team to pull it off. This is where “The Wolverine” falls shy of greatness, despite terrific production values, elegant storytelling and a sensational cross-cultural score from Marco Beltrami. Compared with other directors — namely Nolan, Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn — who have elevated the genre by bringing aspects of their own style to the table, Mangold’s approach is clean and correct, but does nothing to advance the overall state of comicbook movies, owing largely to how heavily he borrows from other helmers.
Thankfully, his references are relatively upscale, ranging from an elegant “Yojimbo”-like scene in which lone ronin Wolverine is outnumbered by ninjas to a “Diamonds Are Forever” nod involving an unforeseen swimming pool, and he even convinced Jackman to channel some classic Clint Eastwood attitude in his wonderfully surly performance. Mangold’s concept was clearly to make an Eastern Western, where the setting is Japan and the adversaries wield samurai swords, but the hero is fueled by true grit.
It’s a remarkably effective strategy, right up until the end, when the film’s finale suddenly feels indistinguishable from that of other superhero pics, as Wolverine takes on two villains — one CG Silver Samurai and the other a campily attired snake-like mutant named Viper who molts her skin mid-climax. Whereas the Japanese-ness of everything that came before brought a certain “Kill Bill”-like novelty to the genre, this metal-against-metal showdown seems disappointingly familiar and breaks the cardinal rule when dealing with this character: that nothing is stronger than Wolverine’s claws, except perhaps his spirit.