After three busy “X-Men” films where Wolverine struggled to stand out, and one trainwreck solo picture, James Mangold’s “The Wolverine” finally does the character justice. Mangold not only satisfies us by providing depth to Wolverine’s familiar traits, but he surprises us by taking the character to captivating new places. Although his flick isn’t Oscar-worthy, the film is good enough to make its terrible predecessor “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” seem like a candidate for “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”
Thankfully, “The Wolverine” seems to pretend that Gavin Hood’s “X-Men Origins” didn’t even happen. It starts out during World War II, before Logan (Hugh Jackman) became Wolverine. As a prisoner of war, Logan befriends a Japanese soldier named Yashida by saving the man’s life. Then the film picks up after the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” with Logan living in self-imposed exile as a Grizzly Adams-type recluse. Even though he acted to protect others, Logan has distanced himself from society due to his immense guilt for killing the woman he loved, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).
Logan’s self-pity party comes to end, when a mysterious Japanese woman Yukio (Rila Fukushima) finds him and convinces him to pay his final respects to an ailing Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) in Japan. After he arrives, Logan discovers that a conspiracy has placed Yashida’s beautiful granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) in the mob’s crosshairs. Unable to sit idle, Logan vows to protect Mariko and get to the bottom of the plot. There’s just one complication: Logan mysteriously loses his healing powers. Will he survive long enough to save the day and find a way to get his abilities back in the process?
Wolverine is an interesting hero since he’s incredibly powerful, yet simultaneously complex. He’s fierce, strong, sarcastic, and nearly indestructible, however these qualities only scratch the surface. Wolverine constantly struggles to control an animalistic side, which makes him dangerous to those close to him. While he has a steely exterior, Wolverine is a sensitive guy who wants to do the right thing. His vengeful, angry nature makes that very difficult though. Mangold’s film is fantastic because it explores all of these fascinating facets of Wolverine, constructing a nuanced character that you can still root for with its screenplay.
Wolverine’s guilt for what he did to Jean and the fear that he might accidentally kill again are effectively explored through his dreams about her. Appearances by Famke Janssen’s character during these scenes add a nice emotional touch, but they’re used a bit too often. The screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank also succeeds in how it addresses Wolverine’s vulnerability. He handles his mortality with believability as he experiences the new sensations of being wounded and injured. Despite these roadblocks, Wolverine shocks himself and us by continuing to act heroically, fighting through pain and fatigue to protect Mariko.
One area that “The Wolverine” stumbles is its overarching story, since It’s difficult to tell where the narrative is going and what the exact intentions of its villains are. One of the main baddies is a woman called Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who you find little about. Another shortcoming is the 3D in the film, which adds very little to the experience. Sometimes when combined with Mangold’s shaky cam, it’s almost nauseating.
That aside, Mangold’s action sequences are generally thrilling pieces aided by Marco Beltrami’s strong score to keep you on the edge of your seat. “The Wolverine” isn’t the kind of film you’ll feel compelled to watch repeatedly, however it’s a solid take on Wolverine, anchored by Hugh Jackman’s sincere performance and devotion to the character. It’s definitely worth watching if you were disappointed by “X-Men Origins” like me.
My Grade: B...as in Basically a Decent Film. Brought Down by Some Bad Things.