Directed by: James Mangold
Written by: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank
Cinematography by: Ross Emery
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto,
Rila Fukushima, Hiroyuki Sanada
A few reviews ago, I praised Iron Man 3 for allowing itself to be a standalone film in an ever expanding cinematic universe, and hoped that such an outlook would be adopted by other films of that genre. It turns out I didn’t have to wait long, because The Wolverine takes a page out of its own origins (no, not that one), and delivers a pretty great adaptation of one of its most iconic stories.
While still tied to the universe established by X-Men (2000), and containing passing references to the events of The Last Stand (2003), Logan’s journey remains primarily confined to his time in Japan, where he must deal with his own immortality among a cast of yakuza, ninjas, and samurais. Logan has self exiled himself because the burdens of his ability and of his past are too much for him to live with. He’s outright vowed to never be the Wolverine again. This film not only gives him a chance to fulfill that vow, but takes it one step further, and delivers a character study only hinted at in previous installments. This is Wolverine at his most vulnerable, as well as at his most dangerous.
Credit there goes almost entirely to Hugh Jackman, who even after six stints with the character, still finds ways to inject him with life, making us once again care about an immortal mutant clad with adamantium claws, perhaps even more than before. Jackman plays Wolverine reserved, and eventually rageful, but he never loses focus of the haunted character in between all of the action. Helping him along the way is a predominantly Japanese cast, best among them Rila Fukushima’s Yukio and Tao Okamoto’s Mariko. The appearance of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) also helps greatly not just with continuity, but in understanding Logan’s mindset, and psychological angst. If there’s a weak link in the cast and/or story, it’s hands down Svetlana Khodchenkova’s Viper and the eventual third act appearance of a robotic samurai who seems more infused by studio than silver.
James Mangold, the underrated director of such films as Cop Land (1997), Walk the Line (2005), and 3:10 to Yuma (2007), was an apt choice to explore the more bleak nature of the character, with an exceptional handle on the material. He manages create a film that very much feels like a miniseries–fitting given the inspiration–with an abundance of quiet character moments and surprising and suspenseful action scenes. This film is as brutal as it is breathtakingly beautiful, bringing to mind a particular scene involving Wolverine, a picturesque Japanese town covered with snow, and ninjas with arrows and lots of rope. There’s also a sequence on a bullet train that, in lesser hands, had all the makings of being an over the top mess, but Mangold manages to keep the action as engaging and genuine as the conversation Wolverine and Mariko are having onboard it. That fine balance is extremely important, or an audience finds itself anxiously waiting for the next scene they’ll like, and not the film as a whole. The scenes with Mariko and Logan are just as necessary to the story as the action pieces are, and Mangold brings a level of confidence to the proceedings that is easy to spot if you’ve seen any of his other works.
I keep coming back to this idea of restraint within film. It truly is a lost art form, to be able to tell a story without resorting to unnecessary add-ons. In fairness, The Wolverine has its share of side stories and plot points that aren’t in line with the rest of the film, but for the most part, they’re not distracting, and the final film stays true to not only the script’s standalone nature, but ultimately to the roots of the character. There’s a post-credits’ scene that is the only moment of sheer indulgence on the part of the filmmakers in expanding upon the character/universe, but it’s insanely welcome because it wasn’t insufferably shoehorned into the narrative that preceded it. May other directors, studios, and films take notice: it is possible to branch out and create something that is almost entirely self-contained and still be valued on the same scale as something expansive, albeit less expensive. Quiet, intimate storytelling is severely lacking in this particular genre, if not in this particular atmosphere of films, and I’m happy to say that The Wolverine, parts of its third act aside, hits all the right notes in capturing that essence.
Eternity can be a curse; a man can run out of things to care for, lose his purpose.