Monday, August 19, 2013

The Wolverine

I thoroughly enjoyed X-Men: First Class, but the previous two films in the series, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, were more than a little shitty. The writers of those films felt that they had to cram as many superheroes as they possibly could into their scripts regardless if they worked within the story or not. The end results were a mess of overlapping superpowers and sub-plots that did nothing except annoy the crap out of me with the wasted potential of the awesome characters that were randomly being thrown away (Deadpool anyone?!).

I was beyond surprised when another standalone Wolverine movie was announced since the last one was panned by critics and fans alike. I guess it made a lot of money to warrant its existence, so whatever. I wasn’t all that excited about it to tell you the truth. When I saw who was tapped to direct, James Mangold (Copland, 3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line, Girl, Interrupted, Knight and Day), my interest was piqued. I mean, this guy has directed some great films and the performances in a couple were Oscar winners (Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted and Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line). If he could apply some of that magic to a superhero movie… shivers. Down my spine. Seriously. The possibilities alone made my geek heart melt.
The story takes place after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand. Logan (Hugh Jackman) is still mourning the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) by his own hand and is living in self-imposed isolation. When a friend from the past comes calling with an offer to remove his mutant healing abilities, which would allow him to age as a normal person would, he declines. However, there are those with plans of their own and steal his powers from him against his will. Can Logan survive in a violent world without his abilities, or will he choose a life of peace if it will allow him to love again?

The Wolverine ended up being the most well made out of all the current crop of superhero films in terms of character development, acting and filmmaking ability. Everything is just spot on for the most part thanks to Mangold’s tempered hand and stylistic choices. It’s also refreshing that it’s a simple story being told extremely well with a minimum of mutant characters being used. The scope is small and intimate, and after films like The Avengers and Man of Steel, which were so huge and epic, this was a breath of fresh air.
We all know that Hugh Jackman was born to play the role of Wolverine, and the fact that he obviously enjoys playing the part adds to the appeal of the character in the films. Here he gives the best performance as Logan yet, showing off his soft side as well as the berserker rage within. This is the first time I actually connected to the character on more than a visceral level and I totally bought into the romantic relationship that blossoms between himself and Mariko, played by first timer Tao Okamoto. She pulls off the typically annoying part of the “spoiled rich girl who falls in love with the gruff outsider” extremely convincingly. You can see her slowly falling in love with Logan and can understand the reasons why. I especially liked Rila Fukushima as the bad ass mutant assassin Yukio. Her character was fun and at times extremely sympathetic due to the nature of her powers (she can see how a person will die in her mind). Famke Janssen’s return as Jean Grey, in the form of Logan’s hallucinations and dreams, is also welcome. She was always perfect for the part as well and she still shines despite her lack of screen time.

Not so successful were the villains, which is the main weak spot aside from some storytelling issues that pop up in the finale. Svetlana Khodchenkova plays the lead villain Viper, who is a chemist that is also part lizard (she can spit venom and has cast off skin), and she is the least threatening antagonist I’ve seen all summer. Not only is she a bad actress, she can’t seem to get the point of comic book melodrama. I’m assuming she was hired for her looks and her looks only. The other (sort-of) antagonist is Harada, played by Will Yun Lee (Die Another Day, Elektra), serves no purpose in the story except to get in the way and provide cover fire during the big yakuza kidnapping attempt toward the beginning of the film. I also find it funny that he’s always playing a Japanese character when in fact he’s Korean (Die Another Day was the only movie where he actually plays someone of his nationality that I can think of).
The story is well written for the first 2/3, and then disappointingly goes into typical overblown Hollywood mode with a damsel in distress. Where the first two acts were an amazingly thought out character study of Wolverine, the third just tosses it all aside for non-stop special effects and some nonsensical action beats. I did enjoy seeing the Silver Samurai realized on screen, but it just comes out of nowhere and is gone just as fast. Viper turns into one of the worst characters in the history of the X-Men franchise and events transpire that are never explained satisfactorily. The reason behind all the bloodshed and hullabaloo is kind of underwhelming and is brought to a very underwhelming conclusion. Writers James Bomback and Scott Frank seemed to lose interest in the script at the 2/3 mark and it shows. They just fell back on the standard clich├ęs that have plagued comic book cinema for decades. Sad, since it was so effen good up until that point that I didn’t miss the lact of action scenes and special effects. I was into the characters and the story and then POOF!, its gone.

Watching Wolverine deal with his mortality/immortality, as well as the guilt over killing his true love, are some of the highest points in this franchise so far. He’s become a more interesting character than I ever thought he would be, and I hope that his development continues in next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. Sadly, this film drops the ball in the end and stumbles over itself and the conceit that all comic book movies must feature non-stop action and CGI. Sure the bullet train sequence and the yakuza assaults were rad (bone claws make a comeback!), but the character study elements were what kept me enthralled. I hope the successes/failures of The Wolverine inspire future comic book film writers to make sure their characters are developed as well as they are here without the need to tack on pointless bullshit that we’ve all seen before.
This is 2/3 of an amazing movie, and 1/3 of a typical action flick. Still, it kicks the shit out of the last Wolverine standalone feature by leaps and bounds. I wouldn’t be opposed to another if the quality is as good, if not better than it was here.

3.5 out of 5

p.s. The post-credits scene is one of the greatest movie moments of all time and has me super pumped for the next film in the franchise!

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