“The Wolverine” Movie Review

     Marvel seems unable to do any wrong these days with their vast collection of comic book heroes to draw from and seemingly flawless execution of bringing them to the big screen.  One of the few misses in their recent history was 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, which was the first solo feature of an “X-Men” character and tested the ability of Marvel to create spin off films.  Though it started strong, the film made half of its gross during the opening weekend and went on to barely double the opening tally during it’s run due to poor word of mouth.  Now, four years later, Marvel has taken a different approach to the material with the new film “The Wolverine”, directed by James Mangold. 

     The hiring of Mangold (“Walk the Line”, “3:10 to Yuma”) signals the need to have a director who is capable of mixing solid action, while still telling an engaging character driven story.  If you’re familiar with Hugh Jackman’s iconic character, Logan, than you know he struggles greatly with his past, causing him to be more of an anti hero, rather than a traditional hero you root for.  Everything about “The Wolverine” is done to maximize his emotional struggle about who and what he is and his place in this world.  Moving the setting to Japan this time adds a distinct landscape for the story to unfold.  Logan is never a fish out of water here and seems to adapt instantly to his surroundings, using brute force when necessary if a language barrier ever comes into play.

     The story opens with a prologue depicting the day the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.  Logan is a Japanese prisoner, locked in an underground well.  He instinctively saves a Japanese soldier just as the bomb explodes,  absorbing the immense heat and fire while covering the soldier with a steel door.  The soldier, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), becomes one of the richest and most powerful men in Japan and in the present day, requests Logan come to Japan so he can thank him personally for the life he gave him. 

     When Logan arrives, he is put in the middle of an intense power struggle between family members for control of Yoshida’s vast empire.  Yoshida is terminally ill and though he has spent billions of dollars to prolong his life, he sees Logan as his last hope of immortality.  At his death bed, Yoshida claims he has the technology to remove Logan’s self healing power and pass it on to another person, namely himself.  He attempts to dig deep into Logan’s psyche, knowing he longs to have a normal life, without the pain that comes with living forever.  One of the key plot devices in the film has Logan dreaming of his past love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and his incredible guilt for having to kill her.  The emotional side of this is key as it is made clear Logan has lived with the loss of one too many loved ones in his long, never ending life.  Even though Logan struggles each day, he tells Yoshida he’s not interested in his offer.

     The film’s key scenes are set into play when Yoshida dies.  At the funeral, it is found the Yakuza have a stake in Yoshida’s empire and attempts to assassinate his daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who has inherited her grandfather’s company.  This leads to a number of extended action sequences in which Logan protects Mariko from the various henchman and ninjas who are sent to attack her.  One such sequence takes place a top a bullet train said to be going 300 miles per hour.  The scene, with it’s flawless visual effects and action choreography, stands as one of the best of the summer.  Along for the ride as Logan’s self described body guard is Yoshida’s step daughter, Yukio, played by newcomer Rila Fukushima.  As a first time feature film actress finding herself opposite none other than Hugh Jackman, she holds her own and than some with acrobatic Samurai sword play and an appearance and charisma that matches up well with her more famous counterpart.

     The film’s downfall is in it’s key antagonist, Viper, played by Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova.  Posing at first as Yoshida’s doctor, it is revealed she is a mutant with a penchant for chemistry.  Early in the film, she creates a bug that attaches itself to Logan’s heart and deprives him of his ability to heal from various wounds, thus making him weak in battle.  We see very little of her in the first two acts, which are the strongest of the film.  When she arrives in the third act and announces herself as the bad girl behind all the mayhem (the audience knows this all along), she’s dressed in a green spandex outfit that would make Poison Ivy proud.  The tight outfit is completely unnecessary and doesn’t fit within the tone set by the film’s earlier scenes, which in turn changes the film from mostly gritty and serious to comedic in nature.  Khodchenkova’s lines are all of the sudden cheesy and are delivered by her as such.  To make things worse, we also must endure a kind of Samurai Darth Vader sub plot, but I’ll leave that to your own judgement.

     With the villain so important to a film like this, it would normally be a huge hit to it’s overall effectiveness; however, there are so many sub villains throughout this story that it seems as though practically the whole country of Japan is against Logan.  As I mentioned before, he contends with various mobsters, ninjas, as well as Viper and together they make for one massive challenge for our hero.  The downside being most of these adversaries are faceless so you don’t really care when he guts them, but Viper and her Samurai creation keep Logan busy enough to carry the film to the end.  Mangold’s dissection of Logan at a psychological level is what makes the story strong enough to succeed and is done in much the same way Chris Nolan did with the recent Batman Trilogy.  Isn’t that really what the purpose of these spin off films is?  There’s never time to explore these issues when Logan is just one of several main characters in an X-Men film, but here he is given the entire film all to himself with Japan as his playground. GRADE: B-