It’s a little bit of a surprise to realise that “The Wolverine” is actually the sixth film in the X-Men franchise. Sixth! It’s a franchise which still generates an awful lot of buzz and has a lot of goodwill despite the fact that only about half of them are any good. The level of affection they’re held in is largely due to the star power of the one man who has played the same character in all six films: Hugh Jackman. Okay, so technically he was only in “X-Men: First Class” for, like, thirty seconds, but those thirty seconds were perhaps the best and truest depiction of Wolverine on screen that we’ve had to date.
Perhaps matched only by Robert Downy Jr’s Tony Stark, Jackman so completely embodies Wolverine now, in cinematic terms, that it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character. He also seems to have a genuine concern for the character and rarely gives anything but his very best when playing him, even when he’s saddled with lacklustre material such as “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, a film so bad it nearly brought the whole X-franchise down. So how does Logan fare when let of the leash for a second time?
“The Wolverine” starts with a prologue set in the very last days of World War II Japan, where Logan makes a decision to save the life of his jailer. Back in the present day, guilt-ridden by the events of/ having been in* “X-Men: The Last Stand”, Wolverine has exiled himself and is living the life of a hermit, his dreams haunted by visions of Jean Grey (although given how manipulative and nasty she is in these visions, I wondered if it was in fact a remnant of the Phoenix). An altercation with some drunken hunters draws him out of his exile though, and into the path of Yukio, a precognisant mutant who has been sent to bring Logan to Japan, where an old acquaintance has a startling proposal for him…
In a summer of high stakes world-ending blockbusters, “The Wolverine” has more modest ambitions and sets out to tell a story which is pleasingly small in scale where stakes, while still high, are intensely personal rather than global.
Although constrained by the 12A rating, this is no declawed Wolverine outing. The fight scenes are brutal and while sometimes incongruously bloodless, there’s genuine heft, risk and consequences to the violence. The fights are well choreographed and the actions sequences well staged, especially a train-top sequence which takes a tired action movie cliché and breathes vibrant, ingenuous new life into it.
The second act of the film which centres around the burgeoning romance between Wolverine and Mariko, the woman he has sworn to protect, lifts its imagery straight out of “You Only Live Twice” and while pleasant to look at, drags the pace of the film down a notch or two. By the time the inevitable call to arms arrives to shatter our hero’s sanctuary, you’ll be glad of it. In fact, “You Only Live Twice” isn’t the only Bond movie that’s directly referenced, but I won’t spoil that little gem for you.
The finale, while exciting, never really gets into high gear, promising far more than it ultimately delivers. The trailer-teased Wolverine versus an army of ninjas is over far too quickly and the set-piece showdown between Wolverine and The Silver Samurai feels curtailed, rushed and a little bit anti-climactic.
Jackman gives his all in the role and, as befits his never better physique, spends much of the time shirtless for, no doubt, artistic reasons. Rila Fukushima is engaging and intriguing as Yukio, Logan’s “bodyguard” and the films suffers for her absence in the middle third while Tao Okamoto is a sympathetic and likeable Mariko, if a little on the bland side to be truly convincing as a woman Logan could fall in love with. Noticeably light on other mutants for an X-Men movie, the only real exception is Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper. Unfortunately, her character feels tacked on and superfluous, only there perhaps to give Yukio something to do in the big finale.
But make no mistake, this is still a vast improvement over the previous Wolverine movie and it’s a film that, like “Iron Man 3”, isn’t afraid to leave its characters with some apparently permanent changes. A mid-credits teaser whets the appetite for next year’s “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” and on the strength of “The Wolverine”, we’ve got a lot to look forward to. The X-Men franchise is firmly back on track.
* – delete as applicable