Hugh Jackman stands tall in the latest addition to the Marvel film universe, which is quite a feat when you consider that the character he plays, a mutant whose skeleton has been reinforced with the indestructible metal adamantium, tops out at 5 foot 3 inches tall in the original comic book series.
But then Jackman, who stretches two inches higher than six feet in real life, has made Logan, aka The Wolverine, his own sort of gruff, cynical, somehow still lovable character in the course of four films in nine years. The last one, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the first stand-alone mutant-powered feature, is widely acknowledged to have gone off the rails and could have threatened the future of the franchise. Just like in the comics, however, movie heroes have an alarming propensity for returning to life against all odds, and so The Wolverine has returned.
The story picks up Logan’s life after the events in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), when the relationship he had enjoyed with fellow mutant Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) came to a most disagreeable parting of the ways. Logan is still haunted by unhappy memories, not only of his beloved Jean, but also of a terrible day during World War II when he was imprisoned behind enemy lines in Nagasaki, Japan.
On that day, Logan saved the life of a young Japanese soldier named Yashida (Ken Yamamura), who went on to become a wealthy and powerful industrialist (Haruhiko Yamanouchi). Now an old man, Yashida is dying, and so he sends his trusted servant Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to find Logan and deliver him to Japan so as to say goodbye.
Of course, Yashida wants something more from Logan than a solemn farewell, and the plot thickens into a sludgy substance that stubbornly resists easy or quick summary. Eventually, Yashida’s son, granddaughter, and oncologist, as well as a ninja protector, are involved in a power struggle whose consequences are not made terribly clear.
Of these characters, Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is key, not least because she develops romantic feelings for Logan when they are forced to go on the run. She and the other Asian cast members, including Hiroyuki Sanada, Brian Tee, and Will Yun Lee, fare well, even though it seems they might have delivered better performances if they weren’t required to speak English so often. Meanwhile, Svetlana Khodchenkova is in over her head as Yashida’s oncologist, who has a secret agenda that reveals her to be a villain without a soul; the actress is unable to bring any menace to her role, which is a serious shortcoming for an antagonist in a superhero movie.
Despite the welcome dramatics from Jackman and Okamoto, especially, The Wolverine is still a superhero movie, which requires multiple action set-pieces. The screenplay, credited to Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, provides a variety of settings, but director James Mangold doesn’t have a great feel for constructing action sequences, shooting and staging them in a rudimentary manner. A duel set on top a speeding bullet train, requiring the participants to jump and leap to avoid being thrown off and/or beheaded, lacks any semblance of reality — we know it’s all taking place inside the computers of talented graphic artists — and so we simply must wait impatiently for it to come to a foreordained conclusion.
It’s an odd thing to say for an action junkie like me, but the best bits in The Wolverine are the ones that come between the fights and the running and the jumping: the scenes between Jackman and Okamoto and between Jackman and Fukushima are particularly strong, and go a long way toward making the movie a pleasant, though not essential, experience on the big screen.
Note: Viewed in 3D on a fine, large, brightly-lit screen at the Cinemark West Plano, I must add that 3D added nothing discernible to the movie. Ticket buyer beware.
The film opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, July 26.