MPAA Rating: PG-13/ Genre: Superhero/ Stars: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, Ken Yamamura, Brian Tee, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart/Runtime: 126 minutes
Throughout the vast majority of the modern superhero era (or at least until 2017) one thing had been a constant and reassuring presence for viewers: Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. As such, we as audiences got to witness that, as thanks to being such a huge reason for the success of the first three X-Men movies, Wolverine got his own solo outing in 2009 with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. A slice of cinematic pie that suffice it to say turned out to be an all over the place albeit decent in certain respects mess of an entry in the superhero genre that also came equipped with a filled to the brim with clichés script and performances that ranged from good to never ever speak of ever again. Suffice it to say then that Jackman, who even after hanging the claws up in 2017 is still tied to the role of Wolverine much in the same vein as RDJ as Iron Man, deserved a much better solo outing to really show his stuff and to play the character in a way that fans of the comics could truly get behind and appreciate. Thankfully, in 2013 Jackman got another chance with the slice of cinematic pie I am reviewing today known as The Wolverine and this is one slice of cinematic pie that turned out to be quite a vast improvement in many respects. Yes I know that, due to the vast majority of superhero movies being large-scale blockbusters with immense action sequences and larger than life characters, The Wolverine might be perhaps a tad underwhelming for anyone who either loves the character, but who also wants him to go “all out or not all” or who just love their superhero movies to be “larger than life” in every way possible.
Yet in all fairness I would like to impart a bit of knowledge that might help you understand a thing or 2 about this distinct slice of cinematic pie: this movie is as much if not more so about Wolverine’s internal struggles as a man as any action beats that occur on screen. Therefore think of this as much more of a character study than the past few X-Men films had been up to this point in time. If however you are able to work with that I promise you will find much to enjoy here. That is because you would see that The Wolverine really truly is a rock-solid, entertaining, and thankfully better-than-expected entry on that list even if it doesn’t get recognized as much due to event films like The Avengers films standing out. Yes this slice of cinematic pie also doesn’t do much to help the character of Wolverine to stand out, but in all fairness sometimes a good solo film doesn’t always need the character to stick out; sometimes it needs to showcase what it is that we as audiences love about the character whilst also telling a story that is a tad bit darker, more personal, and more thought-provoking as well. With that in mind, it pleases me to tell you that yes this film is plagued with the third act dilemma that a lot of great superhero movies face as well as some other flaws, but when you factor in otherwise top-notch work on both sides of the camera as well as a truly riveting narrative I can honestly say that when the MCU gets down to bringing Logan into the fold they should most definitely look at what both this film and the 2017 film “Logan” did because these films are easily the 2 finest solo efforts for this iconic hero that we have gotten to date.
The plot is as follows: Picking up an indeterminate amount of time in the aftermath of X-Men: The Last Stand and based on the first issue of a celebrated limited series from 1982, The Wolverine opens with our favorite clawed hero as a grizzled, disheveled, and quite broken mountain man living the life of a nomad in Canada who is also in a state of mind that is equal parts agony, misery, pain, and grief. Not just over how his elongated life has turned out, but also over his passed on lady love and fellow X-Man Jean Grey (though given what went down in 2006’s The Last Stand this is far from surprising). Things soon change for ol’ Grizzly Eh Adams when, whilst getting vengeance on a hunter in a bar for illegally hunting a grizzly bear he was forced to put of its misery (the bare necessities indeed), Logan is approached by a young Japanese female mutant with the gift for seeing into the future by the name of Yukio who, in addition to being honored to meet him, has been trying to hunt him down for no less than a year. To that end, we see Yukio is able to persuade our reluctant hero to go back with her to Japan in order to meet with her employer who takes the shape, form, and background of a dying and extremely well-off industrialist by the name of Yashida who proceeds to give Logan an incredible offer. It seems that back at the very end of the 2nd World War Yashida was saved by Logan when the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and, in equal parts fascinated by his savior’s astonishing healing ability and wishing to settle all outstanding debts due to being on his death bed, has come up with a way for Logan to pass his healing ability over to him thus repaying our clawed hero by giving him the chance to at long last be able to live a “normal life” and in the process put an end to all his internal suffering at watching everyone he could ever love die in front of him. Yet whilst Logan politely yet firmly rejects Yashida’s offer, it isn’t long before a series of circumstances thrust him into a conflict involving Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko, a sect of the infamous Yakuza, a villainous female expert in toxins (appropriately) named Viper, and another even more nefarious villain whose agenda could spell no more and no less than utter annihilation for our clawed and cranky hero…..
Now I am just going to say that the crew operating behind the camera on this cinematic outing have done a wonderful job at ensuring that this solo outing for Wolverine is leaps and bounds better than the last one he got back in 2009. This starts with film helmer James Mangold who brilliantly treats this entry in the superhero genre less as a “superhero movie” and more in the vein of an old-school samurai in modern-day Japan tale. As a result, we get a movie that is not only a lot grittier than expected, but a lot darker and a lot more thought-provoking than we might expect from a film in this particular genre and it not only works beautifully, but also serves as a riveting precursor to the work Mangold would later do on Logan 4 years later. This also extends to this film’s action beats as well as we see that a lot of them are truly brilliant in how the film’s helmer and crew manage to take full advantage of this movie being set in Japan to create some truly memorable fight scenes. One such scene, which is probably a contender for one of the best action sequences of the year 2013, is one on top of a bullet train travelling at 300 MPH. I mean the camerawork is brilliant as is the choreography and effects in conjuring up what is, even without musical accompaniment, a very riveting moment in the film. After that though, a lot of the action moments are a lot smaller in scale but no less riveting as we see amongst the others a chase sequence through Tokyo in which an archer by the name of Harada takes down a group of Yakuza thugs as Wolverine flees the scene with Mariko or a scene where Wolverine takes on a group of ninja in a snowy village. Also equally as praise worthy is the brilliant script writing team-up of Mark Bomback and Scott Frank who took over following the primary draft being penned by Oscar winner Christopher McQuarrie. Indeed not only is the script just as contemplative and dark as the film itself, but the tempo is quite strong and there are some surprises to be found even if you might be able to see them coming from a mile away due to the narrative sadly also being fairly predictable as well.
As for the cast in this, I can honestly say that (with perhaps an exception or 2) they are all top-notch in every sense of the word. This of course starts with Hugh Jackman as the titular protagonist and honestly I felt he once again brought his A-game and gave us yet another terrific performance. At the same time however, I would also argue that this take on Wolverine is a tad bit more human than some of the other times he played the character before this. I say this because if you look at the first 3 X-Men movies he was usually just bad attitude and quippy whilst slicing and dicing bad guys into human kabobs. In this however, for reasons I shan’t spoil, he finds himself in a position where he can’t just mow through bad guys left and right and is a lot more vulnerable than he’s been in a long time. As a result, we get a version of Wolverine that finally starts to show that, despite the brutal acts he commits, there is still a human being there and it is a trait that we would see pop up again not only in Days of Future Past in 2014, but also 2017’s Logan as well and it makes for a much more three-dimensional performance. I also appreciated how this slice of cinematic pie actually took the time to try and locate terrific performers from Japan to work on this movie with Jackman and they all do really good work opposite our clawed hero. Of the group though, I would have to say that by far the best performances in that group would have to be Rila Fukushima and Tao Okamoto as Yukio and Mariko respectively. Indeed this dynamic female duo manage to do wonderful work not only with their respective characters, but also in how they manage to help Wolverine regain not only his sense of humanity, but also the inner warrior as well. Now I did initially have some issue with bringing Famke Janssen back as Jean Grey, but after watching the movie I can say that I understand why they did because her character in this is more of a metaphysical representation of the guilt and pain that Wolverine carries around with him than an actual character and Janssen handles the role quite beautifully. Now I did mention that I did have an issue with one or 2 of the cast and in that respect, I feel it should be said that I wasn’t overtly fond of Svetlana Khodchenkova in the role of the villainess Viper. It’s not that I thought she did a bad job; rather I just felt that her character was not exactly in synch with the much darker and grittier tone that this movie was going for and would have been much better in X-Men: The Last Stand for example. Again, not a bad performance by any means, but not one that was needed here.
All in all well this was quite unexpected. As stated earlier, in the aftermath for how dismally the vast majority of both audiences and the film reviewing community received X-Men Origins: Wolverine back in 2009 respectively, I think it’s safe to say that news of the iconic X-Man and the equally as iconic actor portraying him’s 2nd outing was received with a cautious optimism. This is especially true when taking into account the fact that not only did this slice of cinematic pie promise to be appropriately darker, but that it was also to be an adaptation of the first issue in a celebrated 1982 limited series which saw Logan engage in a series of shenanigans in modern day Japan. Thus with that in mind, is The Wolverine the say all, end all in terms of cinematic representations of this iconic character? Unfortunately whilst it comes closer than any movie did before it, it still sadly falls short due to an ending showdown that feels a little bit cartoony and over the top compared to how grounded and realistic the rest of the movie is and a few other issues here and there. At the same time though is it a bad movie? Not even close. Indeed it may have its flaws, but thanks in large part to a riveting narrative and wonderful work both in front and behind the camera, The Wolverine is an engaging film and a promising showcase for what could be done with the character thus paving the way for the masterpiece that was Logan in 2017 to come along and at long last give us perhaps the finest cinematic representation of one of the if not the most famous member of the X-Men that we have received to date. On a scale of 1-5 I proudly give The Wolverine a solid 3.5 out of 5.