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Sunday, July 28, 2013

DAMN Good Movies -- THE WOLVERINE


Time once again for another of my movie takes, this one on the film The Wolverine, the second solo film featuring the Marvel Comics character.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now. If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...keep reading, bub...

It's been four years since the previous Wolverine spinoff movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine stripped away the interesting mysterious background of the X-Men's most popular character and perverted Deadpool into something completely unrecognizable.  Regardless, the movie tacked on a promising post-credits sequence that teased a sequel of Wolverine in Japan, something Wolverine fans have wanted to see ever since Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's classic Wolverine limited series in 1982.  It also didn't hurt that Wolverine actor Hugh Jackman stated publicly that the limited series was his favorite Wolverine story.

Christopher McQuarrie, an uncredited X-Men screenwriter, was hired for the script in 2009 with Darren Aronofsky originally slated to direct after X-Men director Bryan Singer turned the project down.  Aronofsky dropped out in March of 2011, citing not wanting to be out of the country for a year and away from his family for so long.  3:10 to Yuma's James Mangold was brought in a few months later as his replacement with the plan of shooting later that fall...that is, until Jackman decided he wanted to sing in Les Misérables first.  With the delay, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank were hired to rewrite McQuarrie's script and filming finally began in August of 2012.

The film opens in 1945 near Nagasaki, Japan, with a younger Logan held captive as a prisoner of war on the very day that the second atomic bomb is dropped.  Just as the bomb is dropped, Logan saves the life of a young Japanese officer named Ichiro Yashida, which of course pays off later on.  The scene turns out to be a dream, but within another dream involving Jean Grey, Logan's would-be girlfriend that he killed at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand after she sort-of went all Dark Phoenix.  We soon learn that Logan has become a hermit hiding out in the Canadian wilderness, brooding and feeling sorry for himself and only coming into a nearby town every so often for things like batteries for his radio.

During a bar scuffle with some obnoxious hunters who wounded but failed to kill a grizzly bear pal of his, Logan is confronted by Yukio, a young woman with a fondness for cosplaying hair dye.  Yukio reveals that she's been sent to bring Logan back to Japan, in order to see Yashida (Ta-da! See?) once again now that he's on his deathbed.  Naturally, Logan leaves with Yukio on Yashida's private jet and things finally get moving. 

For those hoping for a direct adaptation of the 1982 limited series, expect some disappointment as the film is only loosely based on Claremont and Miller.  The principal characters are there, as is the central theme of Logan as a wandering ronin (a masterless samurai) warrior, but they're bogged down somewhat in the superfluous subplot involving Logan's healing factor and for some reason, a mutant version of the villainess known as Viper.  As a result, the film feels a bit schizophrenic, with Mangold wanting to focus on Wolverine in an atmospheric Japanese action film, but forced to deal with a character that has a snakelike tongue, spews venom at people's faces and even sheds her skin for apparently no good reason.

Thankfully, Jackman makes the most of what could be his last solo film as Wolverine.  Even at 44, he looks more fit than ever and gives his character every ounce of depth he's able to muster.  He plays the role of the gaijin introduced to Japanese culture well, echoing similar efforts by Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai.  And with Wolverine's healing factor reduced to a bare minimum, the character feels more vulnerable than ever, which only enhances the potential drama during various fight sequences.

The movie takes something of a dive in the third act, however, as the Black Ninja clan shows up just so Wolverine can finally fight some ninjas.  Rather abruptly, the cool modern samurai tone shifts into Yet Another X-Men Movie with a giant robotic version of the Silver Samurai (Yeah, I know...) along with Viper trying to chew as much of the scenery as she possibly can.  There's an unexpected blasphemous surprise though, when Wolverine's adamantium claws are broken off by the Silver Samurai and he's forced to remind everyone that hey bub, I still have bone claws underneath.

Things end on a deliberately open note, with Logan saying goodbye to Mariko (for now?) before he and his "bodyguard" Yukio leave Japan with no clear destination in mind.  It seems Jackman isn't completely ready to put Wolverine behind him just yet, as evidenced by his participation in the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past.  But as long as Jackman is able to turn in this kind of compelling performance, I'm not ready for him to put Wolverine behind just yet, either.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed? Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

WOLVERINE/LOGAN/JAMES HOWLETT -- Hugh Jackman turns in his strongest and best performance ever as Wolverine, reminding everyone what they loved about him in the role way back in the first X-Men movie.  He's constantly on the ropes in this flick, dealing with hallucinations of Jean Grey acting as his guilty conscience, coping with his severly-reduced healing factor, and falling in love with Mariko. 

MARIKO YASHIDA -- Tao Okamoto is simply stunning to look at, a true beauty that makes Wolverine fans understand why Logan fell for her character in the comics.  But as the love interest, Mariko essentially becomes the girl hostage that needs rescuing, although her takedown of the Silver Samurai proves she's not totally helpless.  Even better, she's not killed off, leaving things open for her and Logan's potential wedding if there's a third solo film.

YUKIO -- One of my favorite characters in this movie.  Decked out in a Japanese punk style, Rila Fukushima is going to inspire a ton of cosplayers to replicate her look for conventions.  Although not as wild and carefree as her comic book counterpart, Yukio has attitude without being annoying and certainly has the martial arts skills to pay the bills.  And with her going off with Wolverine at the film's end, there's definitely a chance we'll get to see her again.

KENUICHIO HARADA -- Will Yun Lee should've played his character's comic book alter ego the Silver Samurai, but Harada is altered here into a bodyguard for the Yashida family and former fiance.  He has a penchant for lurking on rooftops and acting like he's the X-Men's version of Hawkeye, but isn't overly memorable beyond that.

VIPER -- The decision to cast Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper feels like a total misfire...until you learn that Jessica Biel almost ended up with the role.  The character starts off well enough as a scientist presumably working to keep Ichiro Yashida alive, but then starts sporting various snakelike mutant abilities just so you know exactly why she's called Viper.  Khodchenkova does well enough for what she's given by the script, but her character is just completely out of place here.

SHINGEN YASHIDA -- Hiroyuki Sanada plays Mariko's father, a Yakuza crime boss looking to take over control of his father Ichiro's megacorporation.  He's pretty much a one-note character, smacking Mariko in the face and basically being a jerk.  A far cry from the intimidating villain from the Claremont and Miller limited series.

SILVER SAMURAI/ICHIRO YASHIDA -- In a strange and somewhat disappointing twist, Haruhiko Yamaouchi's frail and dying Yashida turns out to the movie's Big Bad.  The climactic showdown has him inside a towering robot version of the Silver Samurai, which keeps him alive and allows him to fight Wolverine.  Instead of a dramatic, tension-filled duel however, Wolverine vs. Old Guy in Giant Robot Suit comes off just a wee bit hokey.

"JEAN GREY" -- Famke Janssen returns to the role of Jean for the first time since 2006, only she's not really Jean here, just a hallucination.  Serving as Logan's guilty conscience, Jean turns up at awkward moments to remind Logan that he killed her and to question various decisions he makes along the way.  Ultimately, she vanishes in a white light, signifying that Logan finally is able to move on with his life, just in time for the next X-Men movie.

PROFESSOR CHARLES XAVIER AND MAGNETO CAMEOS -- And while on the subject of X-Men: Days of Future Present, Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan return in a post-credits bonus scene to tease Wolverine's return to the X-Men.  A caption reads "Two Years Later," providing a little room if there's a third Wolverine solo film down the line.  Just as Logan is about to step through another security metal detector, Magneto shows off his restored magnetic powers and warns of a new enemy that threatens to destroy the mutant race.  Since the two have never gotten along, Wolverine is understandably skeptical, until Professor X wheels around the corner and reveals that hey, he's not really dead after all. "As I said to you long ago, you're not the only one with gifts," explains Xavier (sort of), resetting a line from the very first X-Men movie.

All in all, Mangold's The Wolverine is a very entertaining action drama...at least for the first two-thirds.  If the script didn't stray too much from the source material, this could've been a truly epic film but there's definitely room to follow up in a sequel.  And for longtime X-Fans, there's still a chance to see the X-Men in Japan at some point for Wolverine and Mariko's wedding.  Maybe that could be an ending for X-Men: Days of Future Past?

And for those who may be wondering, here's the updated list of my Top 20 Comic Book Films:

1. Superman (1978)
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
3. The Avengers (2012)
4. Man of Steel (2013)
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
6. Spider-Man (2002)
7. Batman Begins (2005)

8. Watchmen (2009)
9. Iron Man (2008)

10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
11. X-Men: First Class (2011)
12. The Wolverine (2013)
13. X2: X-Men United (2003)

14. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
15. X-Men (2000)
16. Thor (2011)
17. Iron Man 3 (2013)
18. Batman (1989)
19. Superman II (1981)

20. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

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