The Wolverine review: prickly on the outside, cuddly on the inside

The Wolverine green light Hugh Jackman

There’s plenty of good summer popcorn fun, with fresh and exciting action setpieces, but this is mostly an intimate story about Logan, as a mutant and as a man.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, could probably watch him in anything

I’m “biast” (con): getting a little superhero’d out

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’m not a comic book devotee. I only know X-Men from the movies. So I could be wrong about this, but I wonder if The Wolverine will be a comic book movie that appeals more to X-Men readers than to blockbuster audiences who aren’t already deeply invested in the mythology but just want a pile-on of mutant action. Because that’s not what we have here. There isn’t a global conspiracy or anything potentially Earth-shattering at stake in Wolverine. This is a smaller kind of movie than summer tentpoles have tended to be of late. Oh, it’s big in terms of action — I love the freshness and the vitality of the setpieces — but at its heart, this is all about Logan, as a mutant and as a man.

It’s almost a bit of soap opera, in fact — science fiction soap opera, but still — that Logan is drawn into here, a multigenerational family drama revolving around dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), the richest industrialist in Japan. Logan knew him years earlier, when young Yashida (Ken Yamamura) was a soldier during World War II and Logan was — for reasons we never learn — a prisoner of war in Nagasaki on the day the Americans dropped the A-bomb. (Hmm. I have no idea how much of Logan’s personal story here jibes with the comics history. Could be those readers will have reason to howl after all…) Now, today, Yashida’s dying wish is to see Logan again, for reasons I won’t spoil, and he sends his granddaughter Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to fetch him. (Well, she’s not actually his granddaughter. It’s complicated. Like I said: soap opera.)

Logan (Hugh Jackman: Movie 43, Les Misérables) is reluctant to be drawn, however. Hell, he’s reluctant to have much human contact at all. He’s living like a hermit in the snowy mountains of (I presume) his native Canada. Not even in an actual cave — he’s just sort of clinging to a snowy ledge. (I’m not kidding. It’s way more sad than funny. As in not funny at all. His best friend is a bear. And then that gets sad too.) But he gives in, in that gloriously cranky way Hugh Jackman has of making Logan simultaneously a mountain of muscle tied up in misanthropy and kinda soft and mushy at the same time. Yukio sees it. But she’s a mutant, too, and sees more than we normals do — and she’s a woman, of course, and doesn’t need mutant powers to see right through Logan.

Then we’re in Japan. I think no movie has ever made me more want to go to Tokyo than this one. Director James Mangold (Knight and Day, 3:10 to Yuma) stages a footchase through the city streets that is thrilling, like if The Bourne Identity was about mutants. And then comes the battle atop the bullet train! I could almost see the motion lines that this bit would have had on the page, it’s got that same kind of whooshy energy, and not just because the train is moving at bullet speeds. (I think I will stay inside the bullet train when I go to Tokyo.) Later there is a secret society of medieval ninjas with poisoned arrows. It’s all extremely cool.

And all very soap opera, too, honestly. Even kinda fan-fiction-y. Logan is a roiling bundle of angst and emotional torment and aching vulnerability. It makes him even more attractive when he takes his shirt off all those times. He is haunted by the ghost of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Taken 2), who keeps begging him to just figure out how to die already and join her in the afterlife. And this is a genuine possibility here. Because Yashida had discovered a way that Logan could transfer his healing ability to someone else — say, Yashida, maybe — and give an old man new life, and finally Logan could become a real boy. No way, Logan says… but then after the bullet train and the footchase and the ninjas, he’s got wounds that aren’t healing. What the hell? Wolverine has found his kryptonite… but where? how?

I don’t want to make this sound gloomy. It’s good summer popcorn fun. Hugh Jackman continues to clearly enjoy the hell out of playing the character, even after, what, six outings now? In fact, a low-key turn for Logan is precisely what was called for. Well, he might not see it as low-key, but as bombastic action movies go, this is downright relaxing.

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
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