Avengers, shma-vengers. It's time for the return of Wolverine, the mutton-chopped mutant from that other Marvel franchise, The X-Men.
Technically, this is actually Hugh Jackman's second solo adventure as the adamantium-clawed Canuck with mutant healing powers, otherwise known as Logan. However, his earlier 2009 film was a largely forgettable prequel set before the big-screen's X-Men trilogy: the awkward title — X-Men Origins: Wolverine — was as bland as the film itself. Well, except for that opening combat sequence. That was a thing of beauty.
Hugh Jackman reprises his role as Logan/Wolverine in the new film The Wolverine. (Ben Rothstein/Twentieth Century Fox/Associated Press)
The Wolverine could rightly be dubbed X-Men 4, since it follows the events of 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand. (Like any good comic-inspired property, the timelines of the films are a little convoluted. Here's my best guess at how the movies shake out.)
The Last Stand's climax involves Wolverine forced to kill his love, Jean Grey, to stop her from becoming the planet-gobbling force known as the Phoenix. After a stunning Second World War opening sequence set in Nagasaki, The Wolverine finds our hairy hero in mutant hobo mode. Looking like a fifth member of The Sheepdogs, he's hiding in a Yukon forest, haunted by dreams of Jean.
Just when Wolvie is at his lowest, he receives a request from Yashida, a Japanese man whose life he saved decades earlier. Wolverine doesn't have a reason to live and Yashida has the solution: taking away the mutant healing powers that have kept him alive for more than a century.
Sooner than you can say "Snikt", Logan is drawn into a battle between the local Yakuza and the children fighting to control Yashida's estate. It's all rather complicated, but what it means for the audience is that Wolverine is soon crossing blades with ninjas, while also battling a venom-spitting villain as well as temptation from the lovely Mariko, Yashida's granddaughter.
X-Men fans can sheath their claws. The good news is that with The Wolverine we finally have a film worthy of one of Marvel's most enduring characters. It's all thanks to two elements: star Jackman as well as the relocation to Japan.
I've had the chance to talk with Jackman in person and he's one of the most charming, genial folks in the business. With the new film, a smidgen of that charisma shines through. While we don't have Jackman singing Oh What a Beautiful Morning, every now and then he actually cracks a joke and it cuts through the gloom and humanizes the surly hero.
Rila Fukushima stars as the assassin Yukio in The Wolverine. (Ben Rothstein/Twentieth Century Fox/Associated Press)
The other advantage is the new setting. Plunking Wolvie in East Asia sets him up as an outsider, the Gaijin. Suddenly this animalistic berserker is surrounded by a culture that prides skill and subtlety. Much of this side of the screenplay — the army of black-hooded ninjas, the image of Wolverine riddled with arrows and struggling forward — comes from the classic comic series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller.
Unfortunately the big-screen adaptation doesn't make much of how Westerner Wolverine adopted the samurai's code. That omission and the generic action elements mark a missed opportunity. Luckily it's offset by The Wolverine's strong Japanese cast. In particular, model-turned-actress Rila Fukushima is the perfect foil for Logan: Yukio, the red-haired assassin with a snide smile.
Compared to cinematic depictions of comic book heroes like Batman, Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Man of Steel and others, Wolverine stands apart. You might call him simply Man Man because, when you get down to it, his super power is the ability to survive. He endures. And with The Wolverine, he's got reason to live again.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5
P.S. X-Men fans, make sure to stick around after the closing credits for a glimpse of the next round of mutant mayhem.
Hugh Jackman's Logan confronts ninjas in a scene from The Wolverine. (Ben Rothstein/Twentieth Century Fox/Associated Press)
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