In a lot of ways, The Wolverine is one refreshing summer movie. It’s not a prequel or rebootquel or team-up or “dangerous” re-imagining of the character. It merely takes the most popular mutant from the previous five X-Men films and gives him his first proper standalone sequel. (Suck it, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.) And The Wolverine gets bonus points for mining pathos from the oft-maligned X-Men: The Last Stand when the easiest thing to do would have been to ignore it.
But director James Mangold and writers Mark Bomback and Scott Frank bravely decided to address the fallout from the last non-prequel X-film head on. The X-Men are apparently disbanded, Jean Grey is still dead and Logan (Hugh Jackman) is back to growing out his hair and living off-grid deep the wilderness. He’s wracked with guilt and converses with Jean nightly in his dreams. (It’s nice to see Famke Jenssen return to the franchise, no matter that her character only exists in non-corporeal form.) After a short prologue set during World War II, the film opens the same way Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s seminal 1982 Wolverine comic mini-series does, with Logan walking into a redneck bar to roughen up a hunter who poisoned a giant grizzly. (No word if it’s the same joint that employed Clark Kent as a bus boy in Man of Steel, but, hey, it could be. Superheroes apparently love fuckin’ with rednecks in bars and diners. See also: Superman II.)
Before Logan’s bar fight can get out of hand, it’s broken up by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a fierce Japanese chick with red hair and a surprising mutant power. She whisks Logan away to Japan, where he’s expected to pay his final respects to Ichirō Yashida, a dying businessman whose life Logan saved in the prologue. Once he arrives, though, Yashida has other ideas, as he attempts to sell Logan on a plan that would transfer Wolverine’s healing powers to himself, allowing a despondent Logan the warrior’s death he deserves. (The ins and outs of exactly how Wolverine’s mutant powers, which exist on a genetic level, could be passed from one person to another remain nebulous throughout the whole movie, so it’s best not to think on it too much and just go with the flow.) Wolverine passes on the offer while Yashida outright passes, but when Yakuza goons attempt to kidnap Yashida’s hot, soulful granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) at his funeral, Logan intervenes and soon finds himself claw-deep in ninjas, corporate intrigue, the suppression of his own healing power … oh, and love. Yep, just like in the comics, Wolvie finds his soul mate in Mariko, and Logan spends the entire movie either bedding her, protecting her or trying to rescue her.
Like I said, it’s pretty straight forward, but that’s not a bad thing when you have Jackman still completely engaged with the character of Logan. He remains the gruff, reluctant badass we met back in the original X-Men, and six (!) movies in, Jackman still seems perfectly cast. And, for the most part, The Wolverine gives him a nice supporting cast. Mariko is dreamy, but it’s the spunky Yukio who comes closest to stealing the movie from Jackman. She’s so good in fact, that one hopes Bryan Singer can find a way to fit her into next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. The one big misstep is with Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova’s turn as Viper, a particularly nasty mutant with toxin-based powers. On a conceptual level, Viper seems like a better match for that other, shittier Wolverine movie over this one, and Khodchenkova doesn’t help matters by performing at a level that makes one wonder if she just strolled in from the set of a day-time soap opera. But, ultimately, it’s a supporting role, and nowhere near enough to sink the film.
The action is what you’d expect from a Wolverine movie — thoroughly competent while occasionally rising to full-on exciting. (The battle on top of a speeding bullet train is a highlight.) There’s lots of slashing and stabbing, though it usually occurs just below camera to ensure the movie remains bloodless enough to secure that PG-13 rating. The Japanese setting, pulled from the Claremont/Miller book along with a number of other significant Wolverine comic stories over the years, is used to good effect, with the action moving through dojos, fishing villages and neon-lit arcades. And, though the film is over two hours, it moves as a great clip, never getting mired down by any particular plotline. (I’m always wary when a comic-book character “loses” his powers, as Logan sort of does for a stretch of this film, but it’s handled here with the perfect touch. In fact, it’s almost understated, which is actually welcome.)
So the end result is this: Between The Wolverine and First Class, we’ve now had two good X-Men films in a row with the franchise streaking toward the epic-sounding Days of Future Past. (Trust me, you definitely want to stay through the end credits of this one.) It’s not easy to keep a franchise viable seven movies in … or to resuscitate it after disappointments on the level of The Last Stand and the first Wolverine. But the heart of this franchise is pumping strong again. Kindly put Jackman and Mangold on the list of people who deserve credit for making it happen.