There are some actors that are are indelibly connected to a character: Ford as Indy, Downey Jr. as Iron Man, and Jackman as Wolverine. When he burst forth from the screen in 2000's X-Men, he was the best cinematic version of the character that any fan could hope for. But he hasn't been able to fully realize the character on screen.
The Wolverine is the best movie about adamantium-clawed super hero yet. One of the things that makes this such a departure is that it is the first movie that he has been in that is not an X-Men movie. This is not only true in title (his first solo movie was titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but also in style. Yes, there are throwbacks to X-Men the Last Stand and there we will see others with superpowers, but for the most part, this is Wolverine standing alone from crazy costumed capers.
The story takes place a few years after the events of X-Men the Last Stand (Full disclosure: I am in the extreme minority who think that this was the best of the X-Men movies. Take this information as you will as you continue with this review). Wolverine, or Logan as he is also known, is living as a hermit in the woods, as far away from civilization as he can (but within a day's walk to buy hard liquor). He is a broken, brutal beast. But then the mysterious sword-weilding Yukio (Rila Fukushima) approaches him on behalf of her benefactor, a dying Japanese billionaire whom Logan once saved from a nuclear blast, Yashida (Hal Yomanuchi). At his compound are Yashida's suspicious son Shingen (Hioryuki Sanada) and granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). It is here that Yashida offers Logan a chance to be "cured" of his healing factor so that his immortality can end.
From there the story takes some nice twists and turns. The movie eschews the familiar settings and characters and drops Logan into the real-world setting of Japan. This refreshing change not only breathes new life into the look of Wolverine's films, but it grounds this one much more in a reality that is lacking from his other outings. Here things are a little rougher, more raw, and more violent. But the best part is that director James Mangold finally fully realizes Logan as a character. And to that end, he balances the two contradictory sides to Wolverine: the beast and the stalwart.
This is the first movie that we really see Wolverine cut loose like he does in the comics. We caught a small glimpse of that in X2, but here, he mows down Yakuza thug after Yakuza thug with savage intensity. He explodes with a feral rage that is primal and cathartic for anyone who ever felt their anger bottle up inside. The fight scene on the bullet train, while done before in Mission: Impossible, is some high-octane fun. The movie is full of enough exiting action for any summer movie enthusiast. It is chock-full of explosive, well choreographed, dynamically filmed action.
But the other side of him is the noble protector. There is something deep within him that desires to protect the innocent and take the bullets (sometimes literally) for those in need. Jackman gives us his best Wolverine as he juggles these contrary motivations in a way that is not only believable, but enriches the movie. Logan is at his best when he ruthless, but for a good cause.
Growing up as a young Catholic, I always resonated with this part of Wolverine. It was not because I was a tough guy or anything. But it was as if he had two spirits wrestling for control of his soul and at any time he could fall to one or the other. Trying to follow Jesus while struggling against human sinfulness always seemed to me something like that same interior fight. We aren't completely in control angels and we aren't blessedly conscience-free beasts. We are something in the middle that fights against our own (fallen) nature.
And this internal pull is manifest in the Logan's interactions with Yukio and Mariko. Yukio is a warrior like him who has seen the ugly side of life and knows how to navigate the seedy side of the world while trying to walk with the angels. She sees Logan's animal side and encourages it. Mariko is the ideal princess figure that embodies all of the chivalristic nobility that Logan desires and she inspires Logan to be more samurai than ninja. So does he go with someone who accepts him as he is or does he turn to the one who makes him want to be more? Mangold does a fantastic job of balancing Logan's story with both women so that the the audience can choose for themselves who is the better match.
The film's biggest flaws come out when it re-enters X-Men territory and introduces mutants and monsters to this otherwise straightforward movie. My other problem is that the main mutant villain is, for lack of a better word, stupid. There is an incredibly broad cannon of X-Men related characters from which the filmmakers could have chosen, and they picked one that was several layers of lame.
But the story fires on all cylinders when it is Wolverine against the world or Wolverine against himself. He is more vulnerable and more wounded in this film than any other I have seen with him. That simply raises the stakes and leaves more on the edge of your seat.
If you want to see a an excellent superhero/action movie, you should check out The Wolverine.
4 out of 5 stars