Superhero Movie Month: "The Wolverine" Review

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Based on the celebrated comic book arc by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, this sci-fi fantasy action film finds Logan (Hugh Jackman), the eternal warrior and outsider, in Japan. There, samurai steel will clash with adamantium claw as Logan confronts a mysterious figure from his past in an epic battle that will leave him forever changed.
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Rating: PG-13
Length: 126 minutes
Release Date: July 26, 2013
Directed by: James Mangold
Genre: Action / Adventure / Fantasy

Wolverine is one of the great iconic superheroes of modern popular culture. In contrast to clean-cut moral bastions like Superman or Captain America, Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, is a scrappy, feral anti-hero with the weight of a tragic and centuries-long past bearing down on him. "The Wolverine" is the fifth film to feature the character after the original X-Men movie trilogy and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," and moves his story forward with surprising depth.

The film opens at the end of World War II with Logan as a prisoner of war in Japan. In the midst of an atomic bombing, Wolverine saves the one guard at the camp who was willing to show mercy to the prisoners. Decades later, the aging and dying guard, named Yashida, is now an extremely wealthy business mogul. He calls upon Wolverine to save his life one more time, and in doing so relieves Logan of the extended life span he had begun seeing as a curse.

Everything is not as it seems, however, as the question of Yashida's successor leads to an inter-family war involving multiple factions, including the Yakuza, an ancient samurai clan and another super-powered mutant like Wolverine. Betrayals, twists and turns follow in rapid succession. Logan loses much of the accelerated healing powers that have kept him alive for over two centuries, while also facing one of the greatest threats of his career.

Hugh Jackman's performance as Wolverine is the central axis on which the entire film revolves. After many turns at playing Wolverine under his belt, Jackman's portrayal of the character is rock solid, the perfect mix of brooding angst and smoldering passion in all the right places. Logan starts the film as a hermit-like recluse in the wilderness, recovering from having to kill his star-crossed love Jean Grey in "X-Men 3: The Last Stand." Through Jackman's strong performance, the audience easily feels Logan's sorrow and pain at the tragic circumstances of his life. When given what could be a fresh start by Yashida, his willingness to trade his mutant invulnerability for a chance at peace and love seems very believable. Jackman's Wolverine is awash in nuanced layers of gray in the otherwise morally black and white world of movie superheroes.

Other performances in the movie are equally very solid. The most fun and intriguing character outside of the protagonist is Rila Fukushima as Yukio, a mercenary with an honorable spirit in Yashida's employ, who possesses not only phenomenal fighting skills but the ability to foresee the deaths of others. Full of energy and sass, she serves as a bright dramatic counterpoint to Wolverine's darker melancholy. More staid and reserved is Tao Okamoto as Mariko, Yashida's oldest granddaughter and named successor. Quiet and reserved but far from a pushover, Mariko captures Wolverine's heart as he tries his best to protect her from various dangers and assassins. Haruhiko Yamanouchi presents both gravitas and a quiet, enigmatic menace as the elder Yashida. Will Yun Lee also delivers a compelling portrayal of Kenuichio Harada, who vows to protect the Yashida family at all costs and proves a rival for Mariko's affections.

The action sequences are thrilling and top notch. The better battles are toward the first half of the film, but all flow smoothly and pop with thrills and spills every few heartbeats. The best include a Yakuza ambush of Yashida's funeral, and a heart-stopping battle with would-be killers on the top of a 300 mile-per-hour bullet train. The final confrontation with the Silver Samurai and the mutant villainess Viper tests Wolverine like few battles in the franchise before it, and Logan does not come away from it unscathed.

The movie is also beautifully filmed, giving a strong atmospheric feel for the story's Japanese setting without turning it into a gimmick. Also effective are a number of dream sequences involving Famke Janssen as Jean Grey that help the viewer delve into Wolverine's inner turmoil.

The film however is not without some minor flaws. The main villains of the story seem under developed. This is especially true of Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper, who could have proven one of the franchise's most interesting villains but is sadly given too little screen time. Keeping track of the different factions vying for control of Mariko and Yashida's inheritance could also at times be confusing, with only sparse explanations given for their involvement.

"The Wolverine" is the best installment in the X-Men film franchise since the widely-acclaimed "X-Men 2" in 2003. Headlining an unusually strong performance by Hugh Jackman, the story gives more credible depth and inner conflict to Wolverine than any other film to date, while also delivering top tier superhero action.