In the startling opening moments of James Mangold’s The Wolverine, Logan (Real life East Ender Hugh Jackman) rescues Yashida, a young Japanese soldier who was too afraid to commit hara-kiri with the rest of his battalion in World War II, as a mushroom cloud envelops Nagasaki in the distance. Logan, of course, can’t die due to a genetic mutation that allows him to sprout claws and gives him a super healing factor. This could make for pretty boring viewing—what fun is it if your hero is never actually in danger? Luckily, the film finds a way to imperil our hero when he goes to Japan to visit Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), now a terminally ill old man, who wants to repay Logan with a gift: mortality. Yashida knows that Logan is not a happy man, and if Logan gives over his healing factor via advanced technology, Yashida will be cured. Logan rejects the “gift,” and Yashida dies later that night. At the funeral, Logan is shot saving Yashida’s beautiful granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from a Yakuza attack and realizes that he’s not healing like he should. Something is rotten in the state of Tokyo…
As convoluted as the plot sounds, the film unfolds like a conventional Japanese crime drama that’s been interrupted by an American superhero. Based on a comic book story by Chris Claremont, the film is much more mature than most summer film fare. Refreshingly, answers to the film’s central mystery are doled out slowly and sparingly—until the flashy climax that reminds viewers they are watching a summer superhero blockbuster. While the final 20 minutes leave the moody tone behind, Mangold doesn’t forget the groundwork he’s laid for the last hour-and-a-half and resolves the story in satisfying fashion.
Uncompromisingly violent for a film rated PG-13, Mangold pulls no punches when it comes to the various deaths and murders in the film, which range from “honorable suicide” and guns to a gruesome sequence late in the film that gives new meaning to the term “open heart surgery.” Jackman, in his sixth performance as Wolverine—he starred in the first three X-Men films, the abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine and made a cameo in X-Men: First Class—completely owns the role in the same way that Sean Connery owned James Bond. He has chemistry with everyone he shares scenes with, particularly Rila Fukushima as Yukio, a deadly assassin for the Yashida family-cum-Wolverine sidekick who also happens to be the sweet, funny best friend of Mariko. Okamoto makes a strong impression as Mariko, adding layers to what could easily have been a “damsel in distress” role and her (easily forecast) romance with Logan is believable and sexy. Svetlana Khodchenkova doesn’t fare so well as the villainous Viper; whether it’s due to her campy performance or her goofy dialogue, the character just doesn’t fit with the rest of the cast. Her ridiculous expository lines during the film’s climax don’t do her any favors. But it’s no surprise that Khodchenkova’s blonde, sultry, green spandex-clad character doesn’t resonate, especially when the rest of the movie is remarkably subtle.
Jackman’s character is (unwittingly) schooled in honor and pride throughout the film, as Logan struggles to understand the reasoning behind the Japanese characters’ motivation and why it’s so important to his World War II comrade to not succumb to cancer. The themes of mortality, honor and finding meaning are potent and often poignant; Jackman and Mangold have imbued Wolverine with more heart and soul than most characters in this genre (the character is infinitely more relatable than the latest incarnation of Superman featured in this summer’s Man of Steel). But the movie’s not all meaningful insights and existential musings—there are several stunningly realized action sequences, like the tightly choreographed fight that breaks out in the funeral early in the movie; a brawl atop the Bullet Train between Logan and an unusually agile Yakuza ninja; and the aforementioned “open heart surgery” scene in which Logan operates on himself while Yukio defends him in a samurai duel with one of the central villains. It’s not hard to recommend The Wolverine, with its excellent performances, compelling characters, a strong story and solid direction. And stay after the credits for one final surprise twist.