Film Review: ‘The Wolverine’

The razor-clawed mutant makes an entertaining and surprisingly existential digression from his usual X-Men exploits

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.

Film Review: 'The Wolverine'

Reviewed at Fox studios, Los Angeles, July 22, 2013. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 126 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release presented in association with Marvel Entertainment of a Donner’s Co. production, made in association with TSG Entertainment, Ingenious Media. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Hutch Parker. Executive producers, Stan Lee, Joe Caracciolo Jr.

Crew

Directed by James Mangold. Screenplay, Mark Bomback, Scott Frank. Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Ross Emery; editor, Michael McCusker; music, Marco Beltrami; production designer, Francois Audouy; supervising art director, Ian Gracie; art director, Michael Turner; set decorator, Rebecca Cohen; costume designer, Isis Mussended; sound (SDDS/Dolby Atmos/Datasat), Guntis Sics; sound designers, Chuck Michael, Dror Mohar; supervising sound editors, Donald Sylvester, John A. Larsen; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill; special efects supervisor, Brian Cox; visual effects supervisor, Philip Brennan; visual effects producer, Jamie Stevenson; visual effects, Weta Digital, Rising Sun Pictures, Iloura, Method Studios, Shade, UPP; special makeup effects supervisors, Paul Katte, Nick Nicolaou; stereographer, Scott Willman; stunt coordinator, Allan Poppleton; fight coordinator, Jonathan Eusebio; associate producer, Tom Cohen; assistant director, K.C. Colwell; second unit director, David M. Leitch; second unit camera, Brad Shield; casting, Yoki Narahashi, Lisa Beach, Sarah Katzman, Suzanne Smith, Jessica Kelly, Priscilla John.

With

Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Brian Tee.

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  1. ‘The Wolverine’ is an admirable attempt to use a multi-million dollar blockbuster as a character study, but these two styles are constantly at odds and in the end prove mutually detrimental.

    My review: http://www.shelfheroes.com/2013/07/the-wolverine.html

  2. Jonathon Miller says:

    Fox no longer have the rights to Daredevil. I’d suggest you do your research. It’s not hard – Nikki Finke’s sit covered it reasonably extensively.

    Add to that, the “two hands” moment in the finale is garbage. The idea of Silver Samurai’s weapon makes sense in the comic, but the way it was utilised here is nonsensical.

    The Wolverine is exactly why filmmaking-by-committee is proven time and time again to be a failure. Then again, would anybody go and see a less splashy version of The Wolverine focussing more on the Japanese side of the story than the shoe-horned in mutant co-stars, if it cost $60M instead of $125M?

  3. Stephen Todoro says:

    Nerds. All of you… :D

  4. Sean says:

    Daredevil’s rights belong to Disney, not Fox Peter

  5. Peter Owens says:

    The Silver Samurai was not a full CG. It was beautifully crafted by the props makers in Sydney from scratch.

  6. Dan says:

    You’ve got film characters confused…. it’s not Harada, but Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) in your plot summary that wants Wolverine’s immortality…

  7. Ian T. says:

    Matthew, Vaughn???? He hardly elevated the genre…nor did Variety think so when reviewing his decidedly pedestrian contributions. It’s fine not to be a comic fan, but it might help to be better grounded in movies. Maybe it’s time for Brian Lowry to review all comic-book adaptations…

    • X-Men : First Class is considered to be one of the best comic book/Super hero films ever made. That’s fairly common knowledge too.Also at least one Variety reviewer (Chang) gave First Class a positive review. Ditto Kick-Ass so I’m not sure what you’re on about here at all…???

  8. What the Hell??? says:

    SPOILER ALERT?

  9. LOgan JJ says:

    I totaly agree the movie preview written by Peter Debruge. Hugh Jackman is indeed a awsome and brilliant actor plus also the most suitable man to play the role wolverine.Hope the box office of this movie wil be a boom !

  10. Hue says:

    Daredevil actually reverted back to Marvel (Disney) and is no longer owned by Fox.

  11. Jon Kanders says:

    “genuine risk that he could die”

    sigh. no, there isn’t.

  12. Also Fox lost the rights to Daredevill a while ago. The “only” have the mutats now, bt there are a LOT of X-Men/Mutant related comics and they were for well over a decade the highest selling comics, by a distance.

    Starting with X-Men: Days of Future Past (which has a tease at the end of the credits to this film) and then X-Force (at one time a government controlled alternative to The X-Men and latterly a “wet-works” black ops division; Fox are trying to build their own, interconnected version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Mark Millar helping (assuming he still is, I may have missed hat) they would seem to be on the right course for a, slightly lesser, Fox Cinematic Mutant Universe.

  13. Dude Carter, you’re incorrect. The Hulk was played by a THIRD actor in The Avengers!

    • You’re incorrect I said very clearly that Mark Ruffalo was cast in The Avengers. What he wasn’t was MARVEL’s third actor for the role, he was MARVEL’s SECOND casting. Ed Norton was first, then Mark Ruffalo was second. Eric Bana was cast by Universal in a Universal film. Just like Chris Pine wasn’t Gene Roddenberry’s second actor cast to play James T Kirk, even though he was the second actor to play that character (officially)

      You need to read the whole of what I said again as you clearly missed the salient point.

  14. Research / knowledge?
    “The Marvel team has recast the Incredible Hulk three times in recent years”

    No they have not. Universal made Hulk and cat it, in 2003. They messed up and gave the rights back to Marvel .

    Marvel Studios then attempted to repair the damage done to the character by Universal’s Hulk. They needed him NOT to be a character that would make some people pass on going to an Avengers film. So then Marvel cast their FIRST actor in the role of Hulk, Edward Norton.

    then there were disagreements between Norton and Marvel Studios and they cast their SECOND actor in the role, Mark Ruffalo.

    So Marvel have cast TWo actors as Bruce Banner/ The Hulk, not THREE.

    As for Wolverine, Jackman plays the big screen version of him very well. Yes technically he is wrong for the part being about 27cm too tall (6’2″ instead of 5’3″) but he does own it, especially when the writers and directors give him something worthwhile to do.

  15. What’s this “With” stuff in the credits with regard to the actors? Ok, maybe “Starring” is a bit indulgent….but how ’bout “Featuring”? Either way, “With” has to go!

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