What a difference four years and a new director makes. In 2009, X-Men Origins: Wolverine hit the big screen and brought with it a stench that I’m still trying to wash out of my clothes. Seriously; that is one bad movie. Awful, sometimes unfinished-looking CGI, abundant goofiness, and a tired narrative all bogged it down and made it as disappointing an X-Menmovie as I could have ever imagined. Last weekend, however, I had the privilege of witnessing the mulligan that is The Wolverine, and I can say that the do-over is successful in cleansing the palate and allowing everyone to just forget that Logan ever had a previous solo outing.
The one downer is that director James Mangold (Cop Land, Girl, Interrupted, 3:10 to Yuma) had to stick with events that took place in X-Men: The Last Stand (thanks, Brett Ratner), but it’s not really a big deal. Jean Grey appears in a few dream sequences, and that’s about it. At least I think that’s it; I haven’t given that movie much thought since it came out. On that note, I should tell you that I’m not a big comics guy. I read a few issues when I was 12 or 13 years old, and that’s about it. Most of my exposure to the X-Men universe came from watching the awesome ’90s Saturday morning T.V. show. So, if you’re expecting a review that discusses and blasts the differences between Wolverine’s live-action shenanigans and those that occur on paper, you’re going to be a sad mutant. I just don’t have a clue what those differences are. Still, any movie should be judged on its own merits, and with that in mind, I dug the hell out of The Wolverine.
For starters, the story captures the essence of what I remember from my youth, and it does so at a pace that never drags. It picks up after the death of Jean, as Logan is living in the wilderness, basically convincing himself he’s now a pacifist. He’s an emotional wreck, and when a mysterious woman, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), asks him to come to Japan to say goodbye to an old friend, he feels compelled to accompany her. Once there, a sinister plot is slowly uncovered that has to do with immortality and the pain carried with it.
Mangold’s deft hand is immediately appreciated, as the unfolding plot feels much more in line with what mature audiences gravitate toward. By that, I mean Ryan Reynolds is not blocking bullets with figure eight sword-spinning. Believe me, that is a giant improvement already. Instead, the action is fast and brutal and has actual heft behind it. In particular, a late sequence against an opponent who calls Logan a monster for what his healing abilities affords him is a highlight. The one knock I have against the action is the same thing that pops up time and time again with western action movies: The Shaky Cam. I’m sure everyone’s aware of this already, but moving the camera around like a seizure patient never does any favors for fight scenes. It’s not horrible here, by any means, but there are definitely times when I wish Mangold took more cues from martial arts flicks. Those guys know how to just sit the camera down on a steady surface and let the fight scene itself dictate emotions instead of the filming style. In fact, the “grittier” style tends to leave me wondering what the filmmakers are trying to hide behind all the blurry images. That being said, Wolverine gets his time in the sun and makes the most of it. The Blu-ray is expected to be unrated and have ten to twelve more minutes of bloody carnage, which will do even more to satiate my need for rage-induced, adamantium-fueled killings.
Besides a couple of cringe-worthy bad guy monologues where they seem to say the first stupid thing that enters their brains, the foils to Logan’s mission work well. In a lesser movie, corporate goings-on would end up being boring as hell, but here, they’re used as a backdrop to a story that actually engages. Eerie images from the bomb being dropped on Nagasaki are also used to great effect, as much of what transpires hinges on a good deed Logan performed for someone during WWII. While I won’t say the plot is unpredictable, it doesn’t matter how much you can figure out on your own, since the journey is so damn entertaining. Even the ending sequences, which are surely filled with CGI, aren’t hampered by that fact.
In short, go see The Wolverine. It’s so much of an improvement over the last two X-Men installments. Hugh Jackman is as buff as ever, and his pitch-perfect portrayal of Logan is still the main attraction. On top of that, the action and story deliver in ways thought lost on the franchise, which should please those who still remember The Juggernaut, bitch. Oh, and no Taylor Kitsch this time, either. That right there elevates it enough for my tastes.
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