July 26, 2013



THE WOLVERINE:  Watch It At Home – The Clawed Superhero’s Latest is Distinctive But Unthrilling

THE WOLVERINE, wanting to be both more and less than a typical superhero spectacle, demonstrates the perils of messing with the formula.  James Mangold’s film, with a script credited to Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, has the worthy aim of stripping some of the oppressively massive visuals and apocalyptic stakes from the genre, making a more human-scaled version of its mutant’s adventures.  With the epic scale absent, though, the movie becomes like any other thriller, dependent on strong writing and plot and a consistent tone, and its weaknesses are exposed.

For reasons that may be creative on the part of Mangold and the writers, but are no doubt partly commercial for 20th Century Fox and Marvel, most of the action takes place in Japan.  A prologue tells us that in 1945, Logan (Hugh Jackman) saved the life of POW camp guard Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) from the Nagasaki nuclear blast by literally shielding him with his own body, absorbing the explosion and radiation into his indestructible self, to Yashida’s understandable astonishment.  Cut to the present, where Logan, as is his wont, is hiding out and brooding in northern Canada, working as a lumberjack.  (His particular brood is connected to the fate of Jean Grey in X-Men: The Last Stand, and Jean–played again by Famke Janssen–visits him in his dreams/nightmares, but he seems to be subconsciously recalling the events of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, too, even though at the end of that one his memory was supposedly wiped out.)  He’s visited by the burnished-orange haired warrior Yukio (Rila Fukushima), summoning him on behalf of Yashida, who went on to become a fabulously wealthy industrialist and who is now dying.  Yashida wants to say goodbye, Yukio says.

Once in Japan, Logan becomes enmeshed with the murderous politics of the Yashida clan, which is after Logan’s gift/curse of eternal life.  He charges himself with protecting Yashida’s granddaughter and heir Mariko (Tao Okamoto), whether she wants his aid or not.  She’s surrounded by shady men that include her own father (Hiroyuki Sanada), her prosecuting attorney fiancee (Brian Tee) and her childhood love (Will Yun Lee), who could give Katniss Everdeen some pointers with a bow and arrow.  There’s also the somewhat ludicrously unlikely figure of Yashida’s oncologist, a slinky blonde bombshell (Svetlana Khodchenkkova) who we quickly come to learn is also the mutant Viper.

The Viper character suggests how the strands of Mangold’s film start to fall apart.  On the one hand, he wants Wolverine to work as a sincere, character-based thriller, seemingly modeled on Man On Fire, about a burnt-out bodyguard trying to redeem himself through his attempts to save an innocent, with Logan in the Denzel Washington role.  But on the other, the imperatives of a comic book franchise movie require the presence of villains as close to self-parody as Viper, who stalks around in S&M-ish cut-rate Marlene Dietrich garb and seems to have gotten her oncology degree from the same school that gave Denise Richards her title in nuclear physics in The World is Not Enough.  A battle between Logan and a band of ninjas, whose arrows gradually bind him and slow him down, is both exciting and lyrical, but it’s followed by a climactic showdown between Logan and a giant adamantium samurai quasi-robot that’s just silly.  The idea of Logan losing his immortality, and the mixed emotions that causes for him, is a valid one that never becomes dramatically absorbing, because the script doesn’t develop his character in any depth–nor those of the other characters–to the point where one can really care about them; it’s always time for another bullet-train action sequence or chase scene.  It’s possible to meld a giant action movie with a serious storyline and substantial characters–Skyfall did it, and so did Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy–but it’s not easy.

There are other miscalculations.  Of the story’s two women, Yukio is infinitely more interesting than the conventionally exquisite Mariko, but the movie shoves Yukio to the sidelines much of the time.  (And the decision to introduce a romantic storyline between Jackman and Okamoto, who’s 17 years younger than the actor, is vaguely creepy and not at all necessary for the plot.)   The story’s big reveal is both predictable and unconvincing, and Logan’s Jean Grey fixation feels like old news.

Better too much ambition than none at all, and even with its flaws The Wolverine is superior to much of the superhero dross that’s taken over the summer, not to mention the cheesy shambles that was X-Men Origins.  Mangold, for the most part, does a far better job with the action sequences than he did in Knight and Day (that bullet-train fight is a stand-out, adding the challenge of sheer wind to the old-time railroad-roof western battle, and played out without Marco Beltrami’s otherwise bombastic score), and Jackman is fully committed to his role, with a body that at this point looks as much like a special effect as the robot samurai.  There is an appeal to seeing superhero action in recognizable real-world settings, when the action isn’t too overblown.  Even the pace, slower than usual for this genre, has its charms.

Throughout The Wolverine, one can see that real effort has gone into making it a cut different than others in its genre.  But ultimately, the movie’s most entertaining moments come during its end credits, which feature the usual Marvel tease for coming attractions, in this case X-Men: Days of Future Past, which will be the Avengers of the franchise, combining the casts of both timelines in one epic. Compared to that prospect, The Wolverine, trying to be exceptional, is mostly just odd.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."