Logan is clinging to the roof of the speeding Shinjuku bullet train, claws dug into the ceiling, bobbing and weaving to avoid overhead gantries and signal boxes as the city whizzes past. Yakuza assassins, knives scratching along the roof in a crude approximation, shadow his moves. Logan feints. He lunges and then stops, but it’s too late for his attacker as he fires himself into death at 300 miles per hour. It’s thrilling stuff, but this balletic slapstick isn’t a million miles away from Jackie Chan hitting people with clogs in 1998’s Who Am I?
The eclectic nature of director James Mangold’s influences – less other big budget superhero movies and more a mixture of Westerns, Samurai epics, film noir, and intense dramas belies the eclectic tone of The Wolverine – touching as it does on all of these things and more, but nobody warned us it was going to be fun. Or funny. Or even silly, as its final third quickly becomes – more Last Action Hero and more dizzy from its own sleight of hand than even Shane Black’s Iron Man 3.
Taking Hugh Jackman’s titular badass outside of his comfort zone and into the murky world of the Japanese underworld, The Wolverine draws the broad brush strokes of situations and characters from the oft-referenced Chris Claremont and Frank Miller miniseries.
While the comic-book incarnation served to establish just who Logan was outside of the X-Men for the very first time, its big screen counterpart is more of an elaborate punctuation mark on a double-whammy of piss awfulness (2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand and 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine), reintroducing the character as one of cinema’s pantheon, and while drawing him right back down to the rage and the pain we first saw 13 years ago, taking him somewhere new entirely.
Jackman may have instantly embodied Wolverine when he first stepped into Bryan Singer’s cage fight in 2001, but he’s grown into the role – carrying around a rough hemp sack of weariness, regret, determination and anger with each twitch of his scowl or line around his eyes. The Wolverine starts right where we first found him – albeit dialed even further down – living on the margins in rural Canada where he drinks himself to sleep in a cave every night and strikes up a one-sided friendship with a grizzly bear.
Logan is reluctantly taken to say his farewells to a dying patriarch (Hal Yamanouchi) whose life he saved from the mushroom cloud of World War 2 Nagasaki, before becoming drawn into a larger conspiracy with ample tipping of the hat to a whole pantheon of down on their luck film noir bums. The comic-book relationships are tightened to make The Wolverine a dynastic drama – even Yukio is now a sort of ward/adoptee of the Yashida family, locking in a far more complex and intense web of relationships than superhero movies are known for.
Stripping the mutton chopped mutant of his healing factor might seem like a cheap bit of cinematic Kryptonite, winching the franchise gracelessly out of its over-powered cul-de-sac, but one of the film’s stand-out bits of hand-in-mouth heroism comes when god mode is in full flow.
In James Mangold (Walk The Line, 3:10 To Yuma)’s expert hands, this is a beautifully shot and deftly structured affair, a constant escalation in danger dovetailing with the constantly moving lattice of human drama and conflict as The Wolverine‘s classic cinema roots are never far from the surface. There’s a bit of Leia and Han (or Marion and Indy) to Mariko (Tao Okamoto) and Logan’s princess and the scoundrel banter, while sleazy femme fatale Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) oozes Sixties Bond villainy – even strapping our hero down in her super-secret lab lair to gloat and strut.
In contrast Mariko’s father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), the would be kingpin of the Yashida Clan, comes from an altogether more affecting place in terms of comic-book villainy. Apart from his melodramatic swan dive into a pond, that is, he’s a tragic and increasingly powerless figure, soured by bitterness and inadequacy, yet living Yukio (Rila Fukushima)‘s observation earlier in the film about what it is that all soldiers crave – we see his crimes in full, but it’s hard not to feel for him as he stands up to fight a duel he can’t possibly win.
Early buzz had the crimson-haired bodyguard pegged to become a fan favourite, and Yukio is certainly going to rocket up the cosplay charts with her combination of sass, punky fashion and acrobatic ass-kickery, but it’s Will Yun Lee’s Harada who is going to be the true star of many a giddy Tumblr shrine. A brooding anti-hero sulking away his unrequited love, Harada is a crack archer – even mastering Hawkeye’s signature composite bow-flick – and a dab hand with a spot of parkour.
While the iconic Shingen/Logan duel adapted from the comic and the trailer’s promised Silver Samurai Megazord satisfy, it’s the bigger ensemble set-pieces – the early attack on the funeral, for example – that truly delight. Not even Avengers Assemble could boast balanced screen time for its cast and The Wolverine‘s carefully constructed beat ’em up-style special moves will probably have Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson ruing their rights remaining with Marvel.
Viper alone of the core cast seems so woefully underdeveloped in terms of motivations that she increasingly resembles Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, and her arc seems to revolve around behind being increasingly snakelike to the point where you half expect her to curl up under a rock or eat a dead mouse in a post credit sequence.
Though by no means identical to Iron Man 3, The Wolverine feels closer to Shane Black’s action movie homage than any other superhero movie to date in that it’s full of references to things that make its creators high five each other with glee (it’s got an even more batshit twist too), and big bold movie cliches are flirted with, and not to its credit, often embraced. The Mariko/Logan romance unfolds pretty much as you’d expect it to, Tokyo is filled with slot machines and sex hotels, and by the final third the dominant arc has return to superhero silliness from its holiday in action-adventure, but all this stylish superficiality is undercut with sincerity.
Like one of its stupendously choreographed fight scenes, The Wolverine manages the delicate balance of respect for the source and the convention of the genre, big top sensation, and an unlikely, heart-wrenching emotional punch.