For the second time this year, I was pleasantly surprised by a film that I expected to be mediocre. This was the most poignant, engaging superhero movie that I have seen in a long time. The follow-up to the abysmal 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which royally ticked off fans and critics alike, The Wolverine fixed everything that was wrong with the eponymous character's story, as mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) found himself in the middle of twisted science and corporate corruption in the ganglands of Japan. There were no skyscrapers blown up, no alien invasions; this was a grounded crime drama - the answer to a desperately-needed change of pace for this genre.
For those who, understandably, don't have the time or interest in exploring decades of comic book backstory, here is, in a nutshell, what we're looking at in terms of character background: Wolverine, a.k.a. Logan, a.k.a. James Howlett, is a mutant who can heal from wounds and takes a very long time to age, effectively making him immortal and meaning that he has participated in everything from the Civil War to World War II. Due to government experimentation, he was also given a metal skeleton and retractable claws in his hands (trust me, it all sounds less kooky when you read the stories).
The film begins with a flashback to Japan in 1945, where he saves an officer in a POW camp from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, revealing himself as a mutant when he heals from radiation. In the present day, he lives as a hermit in the Yukon after leaving superhero team the X-Men following the death of a woman he loved. He is soon called to Tokyo by the officer, Yashida, who is now head of a corporation. Dying, he wants Logan's healing ability so that he may live on, knowing that Logan, in his grief, has lost his own desire to live. Logan, fearing the consequences, declines.
Soon after, Yashida's doctor reveals herself to be a mutant and introduces a toxin into Logan's body that takes away his ability to heal. This proves deadly when he is called into action to save Yashida's granddaughter, Mariko, from the Yakuza. Logan and Mariko are forced to flee through the urban sprawl of Tokyo and into rural Japan as they are pursued by corporate thugs and gangsters, and Logan must learn why the woman's own family would want her dead. He also begins to fall in love with her, ironically finally finding something to live for.
The film was an adaptation of the 1982 story arc by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller - widely regarded as one of the greatest comic book sagas of all time. It lived up to those standards quite well, choosing narrative over mindless action, and highlighting the romantic - at times comedic - interaction between gruff Canadian Logan, struggling to adapt to Japan's customs and the sordid affairs of corporate goons, and Mariko, a quiet girl tossed into the fray against her will.
The action in which the story culminated was much more focused on neat-looking ninjutsu and hand-to-hand combat, rather than CGI or a "let's blow up a building for the hell of it" mentality. In fact, it seemed like there was an effort to specifically stay away from those clichés. And the few special effects-bolstered parts there hearkened back to 80's action movies, like a breathtaking sequence in which Logan fights a group of assassins atop a speeding bullet train.
For hardcore fans, there were subtle ties to the prior X-Men films here, and a not-so-subtle mid-credits scene that sets the stage for the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014. Such is the way of modern comic book movies. And yet, The Wolverine was also a brilliant self-contained story that added much depth to its main character, and showed off the talent of Hugh Jackman, whose abilities, in the past, were only ever hindered by a shoddy script.
How Jackman interacted with this country, in which he was so confused and out of his element, was priceless. And the unrelenting way in which the character upheld his "everyman" values in the face of endless danger was interesting. The Wolverine stubbornly stuck to his morals, but was also anything but a boy scout; it reminded me of Stallone in Rocky, or Clint Eastwood in any number of films.
Things got worrying toward the end when a giant mechanical samurai reared its ugly head (or helmet?), but the focus was maintained on what counted, and the story ended on an emotionally rewarding note.
Part comic book film, part existential drama, and part homage to Asian martial arts films, if you have been mentally preparing some sort of list of escapist summer movies, put this one at the very top.
2013, 126 mins.
Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rila Fukushima
Photo: The Wolverine official site