Hugh Jackman is a great actor and a great guy who is still grateful to his breakout role in the original X-Men movie, the film that proved the viability of superhero movies and opened the door to the slew of comic book adaptations today. At the time I remember reading how fans were nervous how their favourite character would be treated and whether anyone could inhabit the larger-than-life role; it turned out that Jackman’s Wolverine was the standout performance and he became synonymous with the character. Thirteen years later, Jackman is still playing Logan, and “The Wolverine” is his latest solo venture.
While “Origins” was a pulpy action movie, “The Wolverine” attempts to avoid its predecessor’s mistakes: it’s a self-contained film that dials down on the mutant powers and pyrotechnics, with a strong sense of place (filmed on-location in Japan, with many elements of Japanese culture), and a focus on the main character. The first half is very successful but the second half falls apart into a forced storyline and unengaging action scenes. Major spoilers follow.
I loved the first half of “The Wolverine”: Yukio (the strange triangle-headed deko-chin) was an awesome and hilarious character who wore cool clothes, and Jackman is an excellent actor who communicated Logan’s vulnerability. By the way, the physical vulnerability made each fight more engaging. The Japanese setting was amazing – characters actually spoke (good) Japanese (and were played by Japanese actors) with a few exceptions where two Japanese characters spoke accented English to each other, bits and pieces about Japan and Japanese culture were dropped casually here and there (eg tattooed Yakuza, love hotels, mountains-and-sea, chopsticks stuck into rice), and the funeral and chase were beautifully shot and gave a strong and realistic sense of the place. I enjoyed those action sequences more than the much-praised, more unrealistic bullet train sequence. The journey to the countryside village recalls a trope of Japanese culture (see Omoide Poro Poro), and the normal people (including old people and non-pretty people) as extras was refreshing.
However, the second half of the movie just fell apart. Yukio was sidelined for an unconvincing and cringeworthy romance with a bland woman with two fiances and ill-defined motivations. The lack of chemistry made the annoying subtext – white guy goes to Japan and hooks up with much younger girl (rebelling against her family) whom he’s supposed to be protecting – even more irritating, especially in the last act when she goes from being a naive princess to stabbing a childhood friend and fiance (no osananajimi power there) and persuading him to throw away his life to save the guy who she’s actually hooking up with, and then killing the respected family member who looked after her. Supposedly Mariko and Logan’s relationship is taken from the comics, but it was a total trainwreck here.
The Wolverine is supposed to be a character piece, but none of the characters were very interesting. Viper had potential but her role was tiny; Yukio (who was interesting) had nothing to do after the introduction; Mariko was bland and then did what the plot required of her; and the other Japanese characters were one-dimensional scumbags. Despite the movie’s title, Logan barely changes at all – he’s supposed to be grappling with existential questions, survivor’s guilt and Jean Gray’s siren call from the other side, but the film botches communicating all of that, even with Jackman’s acting chops. For example, I can guess that the domestic village life with Mariko becomes an anchor for him (see above Japanese trope), which later motivates him to save her, but it’s undersketched to the point of being incidental. The dream sequences are a distracting crutch used to depict Logan’s concerns and mental state, and even fail at that: Logan legitimately has a lot of issues, but the dream sequences are just shallow recitations of obvious concerns. Doesn’t Logan feel conflicted hooking up with Mariko while dreaming of Jean Gray? Isn’t he worried that he’ll get her killed, accidentally kill her, or that she’ll grow old and die in front of him? Doesn’t he think about how her familial obligations and adherence to tradition conflict with his survivalist independence? Her naivete with his immortal experience? The fact that she’s his friend’s grand-daughter? Or that she was told stories about him as a child that portrayed him as a mythical beast? Instead we get Famke Jansen spouting cliches like “everyone you love dies”.
The storyline tried, but I guessed the big reveal right at the beginning. It concerns two evil plans intersecting and going awry, which makes things a bit confusing. There are some plot gaps, but nothing I really care about when compared to the shallowness and confusion of the characterisations – Harada in particular draws the short straw, with his portrayal and allegiances going back and forth like a pendulum. (I’m also quite annoyed that they stick a scalpel into a 700 year old family painting for no reason.) Yashida and Logan have a powerful relationship that does back over 60 years, and instead of any meaningful conversation about it, we have a big fight that makes Wolverine look like a bully.
In the end, Logan rejects staying with Mariko, which makes you wonder how to view their time together and how he saw it, and despite his determination to get back and involved, he can’t decide where to go. That’s some great character development right there. The stinger (post-credit sequence) is wasted on a promo for the next movie, but to be frank there was more in Logan’s enmity for Magneto than his feelings for any of the other characters in this movie.
Anyway, The Wolverine has some good early elements but I had trouble enjoying the movie as a whole. Might as well watch Pacific Rim again instead – it’s far more good-natured, the action is better, it has no pretension it’s unable to attain, and there’s no hideous forced romance.