By Gary Dowell
Let’s face it: Old man Logan took a serious cinematic beating in his first solo outing, X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), most of it from the writer and director rather than the villains. It was a hard enough flop to strike down a planned series of Origins films (which thankfully resulted in X-Men: First Class and revamped the franchise) and beg the question “Do we really need a sequel?”.
The answer was “probably not”, but that’s never deterred Hollywood. Thankfully, said sequel undoes a lot of the damage done to the character, and while it’s not a top-tier comic book flick, it is a mostly entertaining one that restores the character’s edge.
Once again cherry-picking from the source material (this time the 1982 comic book miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller that was the character’s first solo outing), The Wolverine finds Logan (Hugh Jackman) living in the Canadian wilderness, struggling with his feral nature and haunted by his violent past, especially the death of unrequited love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen in a ghostly cameo) at his hands in X-Men: The Last Stand. Pixie-ish neo-samurai Yukio (Rila Fukushima) yanks him back into civilization, under orders to escort him to Tokyo to meet with dying tycoon Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), whom Logan saved as a young soldier during the bombing of Nagasaki.
Yashida proposes a trade of sorts: he wants the immortality that Logan finds such an existential burden, offering him the opportunity for a normal life, to grow old with someone he loves and die a natural, perhaps even peaceful death. Logan, who sees his gift as more of a curse, refuses the offer, and after Yashida’s death he finds himself thrust into intrigue involving yakuza thugs, dark family secrets, double-crosses, dirty dealing, ninjas, and a dose of mad science via a shady mutant doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova). It’s a great slice of pulp action-drama with a twist: The Wolverine’s impressive healing ability has been mysteriously suppressed, and finds himself physically vulnerable for the first time.
That sucks for him, but for viewers it’s a good thing: A hero with little or no personal risk hanging over him is just not interesting; even when we know he’s going to win, there needs to be some jeopardy involved. The role made Jackman’s career 13 years ago, and he’s always been game to return to it. Still, six appearances into it (counting his cameo in First Class), with at least one more on the horizon, can leave an actor burnt-out and with little left to explore. However, Logan’s isolation and vulnerability give Jackman a chance to push the character’s boundaries a little bit and get inside his head for what feels like the first time.
Director James Mangold and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, and Christopher McQuarrie get plenty of mileage out of their Tokyo location (namely during a kidnapping attempt at a funeral, a spectacular fight atop a bullet train, and a brief respite in a love hotel that provides a little culture clash-based humor) and visually name-check a well-blended combination of Westerns, samurai movies, and James Bond flicks.
They fall short of greatness by playing it a bit safe via a couple of dead-end sub-plots and an antiseptic visual style and plotting that is sometimes murky and predictable, and settle for wrapping it up with yet another over-the-top action climax that drowns out the events leading up to it. It doesn’t quite live up to what it promises, but as a character study and comic book rip-off of Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza it absolutely rocks, and fan-baiting a teaser scene hidden in the closing credits thankfully promises us some Wolverine in the future.