erik lundegaard

The Wolverine
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The Wolverine (2013)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The unsurprising thing about “The Wolverine” is that for much of the movie our title character (Hugh Jackman) loses his recuperative powers. It’s unsurprising because that’s the way of superhero sequels. See: “Superman II,” “Spider-Man 2,” “Ghost Rider 2,” and “Iron Man 3.”

The surprising thing about “The Wolverine” is that it’s not a stupid movie, a la “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and the two “Fantastic Four” movies, which are all Fox properties, and Fox is infamous for its loutish, lowest-common-denominator tendencies. See: “I don’t have to explain myself—least of all to you” and any minute of “Fox & Friends.”

Written byMark Bomback
Scott Frank
Directed byJames Mangold
StarringHugh Jackman
Tao Okamoto
Rila Fukushima
Sveltana Khodchenkova
Famke Janssen

Indeed, given the limits of the genre, and the baggage of the character, “The Wolverine” isn’t bad. It has quiet moments of power. It doesn’t rely quite so heavily on the roller-coaster ride. There’s a scene late in the movie when Logan/Wolverine is trying to save a girl (of course), and runs into a band of ninjas. By this point he has his recuperative powers back and initially delivers this hero-ready line: “Is that all the men you brought?” But more ninjas appear on the rooftops, members of the Black Clan, silent and slippery, and they shoot arrows trailing wire at Wolverine, including one dipped in poison, and bring him down. I suppose it’s a “How much can our hero withstand?” moment, a pieta almost, and the poison-tipped arrow recalls an earlier scene in the Yukon with a grizzly bear; but there’s a poignancy to it, as Logan goes down on his knees, struggling against all that’s attached to him and holding him back. It’s a ready metaphor. It’s how life feels sometimes. Really? Another arrow? Aren’t these others enough?

This is the movie that finally takes a step beyond Brett Ratner’s abysmal “X-Men: The Last Stand,” released seven years ago, which cut such a swath through the lucrative franchise—killing off Prof. X, Jean Gray and Cyclops, and taking away Magneto’s powers—that we’ve only had prequels since: “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009, “X-Men: First Class” in 2011, and the oddly titled, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” for next year. No small task getting past all that Ratner screwed up.

Not that “The Wolverine” isn’t without problems.

Japanese melodrama

It opens, as “Iron Man 3” did, with our superhero a king of infinite space were it not that he has bad dreams.

It’s August 1945 and Logan is a POW in a Japanese concentration camp in Nagasaki (one wonders how they captured him) when the U.S. drops the big one. Once the planes are sighted, the Japanese soldiers, renowned for their kindness, set about freeing their prisoners so they have a chance to survive. Seriously, they do that. I’m sure Fox was looking out for its lucrative Japanese box office, but for a corrective read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. Or any history book. Or see this.

Another kind Japanese officer, Yashida (Ken Yamamura), releases Logan from his iron bunker, then joins other officers about to commit ritual hari-kari. But he’s distracted by the A-bomb blast (nice use of CGI), then saved by Logan, who is burned to a crisp and recovers before Yashida’s amazed eyes. At this point, Logan wakes with a start. He’s in bed with Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who died in Ratner’s movie. She’s alluring, he’s confused. Only when he gives in to the allure does he realize that this, too, is a nightmare, and he awakes with a start. Now he’s bearded and scraggly-haired and living in a cave in the Yukon wilderness with a grizzly bear as his only friend, and guilty feelings trailing after him like arrows shot in his back. He killed Jean, the woman he loved, to save the world—or something—so that’s why he’s become a hermit in the Yukon. The movie doesn’t really question this but I do. Dude’s nearly two centuries old and that’s his solution? Hiding? That’s as wise as he’s gotten?

Before we get too comfortable camping with Wolverine, he comes out of the wilderness to deal with a doofus hunter in town, where he is confronted by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a girl with a Valentine-shaped face and a lethal samurai sword, who handles the tavern face-off, then tells Logan to get in her car. He does. She tells him she’s a representative of Yashida, the Japanese officer he saved, who wants to repay him before he dies. To do this, Logan must go to Japan. He does. Some Wolverine. He’s docile here. He’s domesticated. He even gets a shave and a haircut when told.

So how does Yashida (now Hal Yamanouchi), who’s now a powerful CEO of Yashida, the Toshiba of this world, repay Logan, who saved his life so long ago? By offering to end Logan’s life. “You’re a soldier,” he tells him. “You seek what all soldiers do—an honorable death; an end to your pain.”

Does he ever consider this offer? Is it what he truly wants? We never find out. Because unfortunately he’s landed in the middle of a Japanese melodrama. Yashida favors his granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto, making her screen debut), over his CEO-wannabe son, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who has promised Mariko to Minister of Justice Noburo (Brian Tee) despite her love for the handsome ninja and archer, Harada (Will Yun Lee).

That night, Mariko tries to kill herself but Logan stops her. Then Yashida dies, which Yukio, who can foresee death, didn’t see coming. Then Logan stays for the funeral (why?), which is interrupted by Yakuza, who try to kidnap or kill Mariko, but Logan again saves her and the two go on the run—she reluctantly, seeming to not want his help, he with bullet wounds in his stomach that don’t heal. His recuperative powers! Gone! Like Yashida said! How?

Long story short: Yashida has willed his entire company to Mariko, not Shingen, which is why Shingen employs the Yakuza to get her. Later in the movie, there’s a moment when Wolverine can kill Shingen but walks away. “You tried to kill your daughter,” he says. “Live with that.” Good stuff. Then of course Shingen attacks again and blah blah blah.

Meanwhile, Harada, the romantic archer, is working with Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a mutant who absorbs and spreads toxins, and who was last seen as a doctor working for Yashida. Who’s pulling their strings? Yashida, of course. The death was a fake, which is why Yukio didn’t foresee it, and in the last act he dons the adamantium Silver Samurai suit to take on Wolverine, chop off his claws, and absorb his recuperative powers. “You thought a life without end has no meaning,” he says to Wolverine. “But it’s the only life that has meaning.”

In the end, Wolverine loses his adamantium claws (tough to watch), regrows his skeletal ones (which never seemed as cool), and wins the day (big surprise). The experience has somehow helped him purge his guilt over killing Jean. He’s also started a relationship with Mariko, now a CEO, but leaves Japan anyway, with Yukio, in a kind of “Casablanca” moment without the resonance. “I’m a soldier,” he says, “and I’ve been hiding too long.” He’s Rick, Yukio is Louis, and the private plane they walk into is the Casablanca fog. Not nearly as cool.

As for all the problems I’ve addressed? There are more.

Logan melodrama

If Yashida’s plan was to absorb Logan’s life-force, his longevity, why not do it that first night? Viper implants the bug that messes with his recuperative powers, so why not, at that moment, trap Logan and attempt to do what you did in the final act? Why wait?

And does Logan really live forever? He’s obviously aged. He used to be a baby, then a boy, and now he looks like Hugh Jackman at 44. He probably just ages more slowly than us, but he will die someday. So his life isn’t a life without end. He should know that.

At the same time, I do like how the movie gives lie to Wolverine’s central conceit and complaint, which he says early to Yashida: “Trust me, Bub. You don’t want what I’ve got.” Really? Instant recuperation from any injury? Long life? No, I think I’d like to have that. The problem has never been Logan’s power but what he does with it. He’s relies upon it like a crutch. It’s astonishing the number of ninjas who lay hands on him. They’ve trained for, what, a decade or two, he for centuries, yet they’re actually better fighters than he is. He just recuperates faster. His super power has actually made him weaker.

And can he learn a second language? Alive nearly two centuries and he can’t speak a lick of Japanese.

And what’s Canadian about him? He seems wholly, gruffly American. Because he is. He’s Ben Grimm recast.

And why just dream of Jean? What happened to the girl from the ’70s? Already forgotten? And was there no girl from the ’50s? The ’20s? The Gay ’90s? The 1860s? No, he keeps dreaming of Jean, who, like Jamie King in the godawful “Spirit” movie, and Jessica Lange in “All That Jazz,” represents death. Apparently death is always a beautiful woman. At least for men with limited imaginations.

X-Men melodrama

But somehow the movie still works. Not sure who to credit. Screenwriter Scott Frank has a tendency to work on movies that are better and smarter than they should be: “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight,” “Minority Report” and “Marley & Me,” among others. Screenwriter Mark Bomback is associated with more loutish films (“Live Free or Die Hard,” the “Total Recall” reboot, the “Race to Witch Mountain” reboot), while director James Mangold has made some not-bad serious films: “Walk the Line,” “3:10 to Yuma,” “Girl, Interrupted.” Jackman is superb as always.

Fanboys will probably be talking up the mid-credit sequence, two years after the events in this movie, when both Magneto (Ian McKellen, with powers) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart, alive again), appear to Logan asking for his help against a new, powerful enemy. Wooooo! Yeah, but not for me. That was cool in “Iron Man” in 2008 but now it’s just a ploy to build toward another “Avengers”-like killing at the box office. It’s sloppy sevenths.

No, the better part of “The Wolverine” is the part the fanboys won’t like—that it’s the least superhero-y of the recent superhero movies. It also feels like some vaguely intelligent people were behind it, and they didn’t mind crediting their audience with some vague intelligence, either. In today’s culture, with today’s summer movies, that’s a welcome change, bub.

—July 28, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard

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