Friday, July 26, 2013


In a summer that’s found every science fiction superhero spectacle level city blocks without batting an eye, it’s refreshing to find that in The Wolverine, violence has an impact. The film is lean, focused, contained, and personal; violence and destruction happens to and is perpetrated by flesh-and-blood characters we know. But then again, that’s what the cinematic X-Men series has largely aspired to. The first image in Bryan Singer’s inaugural entry back in summer 2000 was of worn shoes squishing through the mud of a concentration camp. Wolverine, the sixth in the series, opens on a Japanese prisoner of war camp located on the shores of what we come to understand is Nagasaki, soon to be leveled by a mushroom cloud. This isn’t your average cartoonishly violent comic book film. Here violence has a substance and presence that feels not always historical and real – these are, after all, still films about superpowered humans hurtling towards each other in scenes of vivid and exciting action – but has a kind of moral weight.

That’s not to say that this is a film that’s grim or self-serious, a la Zack Snyder’s underwhelming Man of Steel from just a month ago. As directed by James Mangold from a script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, the film is a blast of expertly staged action, colorful set design, and pulpy characterizations. The plot twists and slides effortlessly, the rare tentpole production that doesn’t feel as if it falls immediately into autopilot. There’s a flavor and a pace that feels thoughtfully and patiently put together, not to slow down the action or burden the plot with heavy-handed themes, but to allow it maximum impact. This feeling of flavor and style is refreshing in a summer during which the trend has been towards gray design, lumbering franchise care, and bounteous uncaring collateral damage

After two prequels, the X-Men series returns to its chronological present in this film, picking up after the events of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, which cleared the cast of some big name characters. This leaves Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, still one of the best and most appealing pairings of star and character I’ve ever seen) wandering depressed and alone in the wilderness until he’s drawn into a self-contained world of intrigue. This pared down plotting puts the focus squarely on the seemingly immortal mutant with adamantium claws. We’ve learned in the World War II-set opening scene that he saved a Japanese soldier from the atomic blast. Decades later, that man, now a dying tech company tycoon (Hal Yamanouchi), invites Wolverine back to Japan to say goodbye and receive his thanks. The tightly focused plot finds the lone mutant drawn into a world of corporate intrigue involving the old man’s embattled company, the yakuza, and a group of ninjas. The man’s son (Hiroyuki Sanada) and granddaughter (Tao Okamoto), as well as a mutant adopted granddaughter (Rila Fukushima), have their own roles in the plots that are already in motion when we arrive.

There’s a terrific Japanese flavor to the film, at once traditional and with smoothly incorporated sci-fi embellishments. In wardrobe and architecture, color and cuisine, this is a great evocation of place and space. Even the score by Marco Beltrami takes on lovely Asian instrumentation. It’s a refreshing change of pace. The sensational action sequences, nicely shot by cinematographer Ross Emery, benefit from this as well. An early stunner involves a yakuza attack at a traditional funeral, the placid garden of bonsai trees and calm waters around small rocks becomes a broad-daylight scene of martial arts, archery, and metallic claws. This leads almost immediately into a great use of a bullet train. Later, a small snowy village crawling with ninjas forms a nice black and white contrast. Elsewhere there’s great use of sliding doors, interlocking wall panels and swooping roofs to put architecture to use creating tension and visual interest alike, staging clear, crisp, and vivid action sequences of color and consequence in which the special effects and designs are convincing and creative without overwhelming their narrative purpose.

Through all the creatively staged violence, there are real stakes and squirming moments of physical peril. There’s a focus on character that heightens the stakes, rather than falling back on typically overblown world-ending cataclysms of the genre (a fate the series as a whole has tended to avoid). It’s easier to care when a movie puts specific characters in consistent peril. Jackman’s performance as Wolverine is as good as always, but here, given material leaps and bounds above his previous solo outing in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, he’s given a chance to play the character as worn and tortured, haunted by his recent past. Here he’s scruffy and muscled, but soulful and wounded as well, intensely sympathetic in his vulnerable toughness. It’s the comic book action movie as character piece, which gives room for the terrific Japanese cast to play real human beings as well. None are here just to pose and fight while special effects happen around them. It’s a full-blooded film with emotional stakes and complicated feelings.

Even though the film’s biggest assets are its leanness, focus on one character’s journey, and comic book injection of dependable Japanese action genres (ninja combat, yakuza noir, samurai honor), it nonetheless falls into the X-Men series easily and compellingly. It doesn’t linger on mutant metaphors, but has some nice resonances around the edges. It doesn’t contain the X-Men, but their presence is felt in Wolverine’s psychological condition. What we have here is an adventure serial with real heft, that’s able to hop eras, countries and characters, and maintain a sense of continuity while finding ways to stay fresh and exciting. How many big budget superhero franchises arrive at their sixth entry and still feel fresh? The Wolverine is sharp, solid, exciting, and unexpectedly elegant in design, the most satisfying picture of its kind this year. 

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