The Wolverine (2013)

Hugh Jackman brings out the claws once more for The Wolverine

Director: James Mangold

Cast: Hugh Jackman (Logan/Wolverine), Hiroyuki Sanada (Shingen Yashida), Tak Okamoto (Mariko Yashida), Rila Fukushima (Yukio), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Will Yun Lee (Kenuichio Harada), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Dr Green/Viper), Haruhiko Yamanouchi (Ichiro Yashida), Brian Tee (Noburo Mori), Ken Yamamura (Young Ichiro Yashida)

Before James Mangold and Hugh Jackman teamed up for their triumphant 2017 Wolverine capper Logan, they first made The Wolverine. Adapting one of the most popular comic books to feature the clawed superhero, The Wolverine is set in Japan where Logan’s Ronin-like personality comes into contact with a culture he has more than a little sympathy for. 

Opening with the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, Logan saves the life of young soldier Ichiro Yashida. Over 60 years later, the ageing Ichiro (Hauhiko Yamanouchi), now a tech billionaire, asks Logan to see him before he dies. He offers Logan the chance to give up his regenerative powers and live a “normal” life. Logan is unsure – but when Yashida dies, he suddenly finds his power gone and that he is embroiled in an inheritance war between Ichiro’s son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and granddaughter Mariko (Tak Okamoto), with uncertain aid/opposition from Yashida retainers Yukio (Rila Fukushima) and Harada (Will Yun Lee).

The Wolverine wants to be a dark character study, an attempt to drill down into the psyche of its hero. It doesn’t really succeed in doing this. Following on directly from the little-loved X-Men: The Last Stand, the present day section of the film opens with Logan still consumed with guilt over his euthanasia of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), haunted by dreams of her. Living rough – and of course with the beard of tragedy looming large – the film aims to use the Japanese setting to bring Logan into a greater understanding of himself. In other words to accept the two halves of his personality: Logan and Wolverine. It’s no surprise to say this is what happens, but it fails to really get a sense of the clash between the two halves, or a sense of internal struggle of Logan wanting to reject the Wolverine personae.

Put simply, the film doesn’t manage to give us an idea of the internal war in Logan. He talks of wanting to leave violence behind him, but the sort of existential torment this requires would get in the way too much of the sort of claw-slashing action the fans are handing over their ticket money to see. On top of this, the sort of Samurai-inspired, still semi-feudal Japanese setting (with established families and loyal retainers) doesn’t really end up relating too much to the action. The sort of “masterless samurai” story the film is trying to tell requires a sense of deep honour and duty – themes which are there but don’t really come together into something really coherent. 

Basically, Japanese culture is, by and large, pretty irrelevant to the actual setting. Samurai culture is trivialised down to something that lacks any real thematic depth – the only thing that really matters is Logan learning a Japanese sword is a two-handed weapon – and the clash between Western greed and old-fashioned values of duty, honour and service is barely more than inferred. Effectively, for all the locations, the film could basically have been set anywhere at all, the entire cast replaced with Russians or Ghanaians or French and barely a word of the script would have needed to change.

Alongside this, the action, when we see it, has been watered down to the safest, PG-rated level you can imagine. There is barely any blood seen on the screen. Characters are hacked and slashed but all of it with smooth cleanliness. Action scenes switch between being shot far too closely, and with too much of an admiring air for choreography, or with a super-shiny gloss of special effects. There is a pretty good sequence on top of a bullet train, with Logan and his opponents tumbling and buffeted in the wind, but even this feels a little over produced. By the time the film hits its final battle, it’s hard not to be a little bit bored as Logan takes on a massive special effect, in a battle where the stakes are not altogether clear.

But then that’s the problem of this film, a sort of overly-complex Diet Coke of a film. The film has no fewer than three potential villains, none of whom end up being particularly interesting. It heads towards a final resolution that doesn’t feel like it helps us – or Logan – learn anything new about themselves. “I am the Wolverine” Logan growls at one point – but this claiming of his identity never really feels that earned. It’s a statement, a suggestion of depth, rather than depth itself.

This is hard on the film, and really there is nothing that wrong with it. It’s perfectly entertaining and passes the time. But it leaves the viewer with nothing after it finishes. It happens and then it is not happening and to be honest you won’t really notice the difference. It lands fairly in the middle of the franchise, a bland but not offensive effort that had the potential to be something greater but ends up firmly safe and middle-brow, avoiding diving too far down into its lead character’s psyche or showing us real action. Jackman is still good, much of the cast are fine, and Mangold is a solid director – but it never sets alight. Perhaps the sense of missed opportunity here is what ended up powering a much darker, grittier and engrossing film in Logan?

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