It only took them six movies, but they finally got Wolverine right. There have been hints of the character in previous X-films, but it’s The Wolverine that puts the most convincing version of the Chris Claremont/John Byrne/Frank Miller Golden Era Logan on screen. That alone makes The Wolverine worth recommending; that it’s mostly a strong character piece with some blazing action only makes it easier to recommend.
But then it takes a left turn into something between a Joel Schumacher movie and a James Bond rip-off. What had been a smaller scale, largely practical story balloons into something silly and dripping with pixels. It’s disappointing, but that last act swerve isn’t quite enough to fully derail The Wolverine.
The movie picks up some time after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, and Wolverine has gone to live alone in the wilds of Canada, consumed with guilt after being forced to kill Jean Grey. He has promised to never hurt anyone else, but when local hunters poison a grizzly bear we see that he’s barely able to keep that vow. Which is all good because a mysterious Japanese girl arrives in town and whisks him away to Tokyo, where he is reunited with a Japanese prison guard he rescued from the Nagasaki A-bomb explosion decades before.
That guard has become the most powerful and richest man in Japan, and now he is dying. He wants to thank Wolverine for saving him that day, but he also wants something else. He knows of Wolverine’s secret powers, and over the last few decades he has been working on a system that will allow him to take Logan’s healing factor for himself. The man, Yashida, can live forever and Wolverine will finally be given the sweet release of death.
Wolvie refuses but finds his powers waning anyway. Yashida dies and things ramp up at his funeral as Yakuza thugs try to kidnap his granddaughter, the lovely but empty Mariko. Logan saves her and they run off together to avoid further attacks and begin falling in love. All this time his powers are slowly disappearing from him, so bullets really hurt and he actually needs to go to a doctor when he’s injured.
This is the good stuff. Director James Mangold spends a lot of time on Logan the man, and the script, by Mark Bomback & Scott Frank and Christopher McQuarrie, is focused on his internal struggle between the wild animal and the sensitive human. This has always been what smart fans responded to in Wolverine, the dichotomy of this guy who on the one hand flips out and slices people to shreds but who on the other hand is always nursing wounds deep in his psyche.
The Wolverine is based on a Wolvie solo mini-series from the early 80s, and it reflects that mini-series’ stroke of genius, that the divided psyche of Japan - honorable, respectful on one side and brutal and violent on the other - perfectly reflects Wolverine. That the fit is so perfect only renders X-Men Origins: Wolverine all the more odious in retrospect; why wouldn’t they have come to Japan first? This is a nation and a culture that gives Logan some personal definition, something he never found in Canada growing up or in the X-Men. Mangold, who likes to make movies about men, uses this setting as a way to examine what masculinity means, contrasting the rough and selfish masculinity of Canadian hunters with the graceful masculinity of ninja.
This also gives Hugh Jackman some meat to chew on. Wolverine as ronin has always been sort of present in his portrayal, but it’s front and center here; Jackman gets to lean on the nobility of Logan in a way that fulfills the character’s promise of being a real badass. Too often his movie storylines have been about bristling at being included, doing that loner thing, but The Wolverine understands Logan’s best stories are the ones where he’s just trying to help someone. And where he’s acting like a smitten kitten; the character is a painful romantic, and The Wolverine gives him room to go there.
Sadly that room almost sinks the picture. Much like in the original comics, Mariko, Yashida’s granddaughter and Logan’s love interest, is a bore. She’s got nothing going on, and she’s a wilting flower of a character who exists just to be endangered and saved. And that’s not just my reading of her; the villain’s entire plot hinges on the idea that she’s basically weak. Her formlessness makes the romance with Logan unconvincing, robbing the movie of its basic heart.
More convincing is Logan’s friendship with Yukio, the Japanese girl who took him away from the snowy mountains. An ass-kicking mutant whose talent is to see when people die, Yukio fills the sidekick role nicely. Yukio is played by model Rila Fukushima, who has the sort of beautiful alien face (see also Lily Cole) that instantly sets her apart in any scene, allowing her to always compete with Jackman’s massive, jiggling pecs.
The Wolverine is mostly a very good movie. The stakes are refreshingly small - Wolverine wants to save the woman he loves and himself, not the world - and the action is often blazing. There is a fight on top of a speeding bullet train that looks ridiculous in the trailers and is ridiculous in the movie... but ridiculous in all the right ways. It’s a thrilling, ‘holy shit!’ filled battle that speaks to Mangold’s delicate ability to take what could have been a grim bummer of a movie and thread it with lightness and fun. Other battles are equally great, and while seeing Wolvie cross claws with samurai swords gets old eventually Mangold keeps trying to switch things up. It’s hard not to enjoy watching Wolverine battle rooftop ninjas in a small Japanese village.
But that ending! The Wolverine is a movie that already suffers from Knockout Transition Syndrome - using convenient unconscious spells to transition scenes - and the end of the movie must include five bits of people being knocked out and awoken in a place where they can be given exposition. By the time Wolverine is battling a 15 foot tall CGI Silver Samurai mech you’ll feel the charm of the character-based movie slipping; when Yukio is going up against a vinyl-suited villainess named Viper you’ll just put your head in your hands. How did the movie go so terribly off the rails? Why does the climactic fight involve a CGI Wolverine and a CGI Silver Samurai falling many stories in an evil villain science lair not once but MULTIPLE TIMES? It’s not just that this ending is bad - and it’s pretty bad - but that it feels like a betrayal of what went before. Gone is the tangible humanity of The Wolverine, replaced with incoherent bombast. At least the whole lab doesn’t explode, which is something I guess.
That ending and the weak love story (I’ve seen Logan and Mariko’s courtship compared to a date on The Bachelor elsewhere) undermine what could have been a GREAT movie. Still, looking back at the entire X-franchise (especially looking back at the previous solo Wolverine movie), The Wolverine being just a very good movie is a huge step in the right direction.