Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2013

The Wolverine

Tokyo drifter

No overpowering villain, no mass annihilation, 'The Wolverine' is just a lean, low-key and effective superhero thriller

The Wolverine
20th Century Fox
Director: James Mangold
Screenplay: Mark Bomback and Scott Frank
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rila Fukushima, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Brian Tee, Haruhiko Yamanouchi and Famke Janssen
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 6 minutes
July 26, 2013
(out of four)

Now here's a superhero film that allows itself to operate on a medium scale, that allows its characters room to breathe, that does not climax with mass destruction and explosions. I had just published a piece lamenting the arbitrary "bigness" of the comic-book genre, and then as if by divine providence, along came The Wolverine to provide a counterpoint.

This isn't a perfect movie nor a great one, but it does behave like a story of its own, rather than as part of some prepackaged template. It feels unlike a superhero movie primarily because most other superhero movies have begun to all feel the same. That alone is worth celebrating. Of all the movies to take place within the X-Men universe (six and counting), I'd rate this as the second-best, behind only 2003's X2: X-Men United.

Inheriting the origin details from 2009's ill-fated X-Men Origins: Wolverine but otherwise ignoring its relevance, the new film has the DNA of a Western and explicitly evokes samurai mythology, therefore defining itself in the tradition of two genres that have been historically intertwined for decades. The Wolverine's tale has always been that of a loner - not a mercenary, but certainly a man without a master. Or at least resistant to one. Like so many grizzled, reluctant heroes and antiheroes, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is holed up away from civilization, a mysterious outsider just waiting, even if he doesn't know it, for the inevitable day when someone comes looking for his services. He resists like he always does, and he resists again, but invariably he accepts, and finds himself a reluctant fighter in the name of . . . well, if not justice, then at least personal absolution. If it were a few decades earlier, Clint Eastwood would be right at home with this incarnation of the character.

The inevitable comes in the form of Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a psychic, samurai sword-wielding mutant who finds Logan in an isolated town in Alaska. Her request is simple - the only reason he accepts - and that is to accompany her back to Tokyo so that her employer, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), can say goodbye before his death. The two met seven decades earlier, when Logan saved his life during the bombing of Nagasaki. When he arrives at the old man's bedside, Logan gets quite a different offer than what he expected. Rather than a simple goodbye, Yashida offers to "repay" his life debt by taking on the immortality that Logan now sees as a curse. The old man - one of the most powerful businessmen in all of Japan - has discovered a way to transfer the adamantium procedure from one body to another.

Despite his ongoing anguish over the deaths - for decades and decades - of everyone he has loved, Logan refuses the offer, and Yashida dies quietly later that night. But things, naturally, don't resolve quite so quietly for the Wolverine, and before he knows it he's the central figure in a massive corporate power struggle and the target of a pair of manhunts, at least one of which is intent on stripping him of his superhuman abilities. On one side, he's being chased by ninjas; on the other, henchmen, seemingly operating under the control of the seductively evil Dr. Green (Svetlana Khodchenkova, who you may recognize from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). To complicate matters, he's taken it upon himself - being the good guy that he truly is, deep down - to protect Yashida's granddaughter and heir, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), from assassins (the fact that she's a knockout is purely incidental), as her importance to the family empire has suddenly made her something of a sitting duck for various interested parties.

One of the things I liked most about The Wolverine is how it plays out like a Far East espionage story rather than an action spectacle. Not that there's a shortage of action - there's one long, absurd (but enjoyable) fight scene atop a bullet train, for example - but those scenes, in addition to being mostly well-done (if still somewhat too reliant on close-up handheld camerawork), are in the service of something more interesting. The romantic chemistry between Logan and Mariko may be forced, but the rest of their journey is not. In a way this is something of an old-fashioned political thriller - the hero and the girl he's protecting, on the run from forces of corruption, trying to unravel a mystery - deepened by Logan's ongoing struggle with his own guilt and anger.

Generally speaking, the stakes in a movie like this are largely superficial (Nolan's Batman trilogy being a conspicuous exception), so for an individual film to be successful, it tends to need something beyond story, beyond the bad guy to beat or the puzzle to solve. The Wolverine has that. It's about Logan finally coming to terms with the Wolverine - forgiving his past, moving forward - an evolution fostered both by his guardianship of Mariko and, perhaps more importantly, his budding kinship with Yukio.

The Wolverine's lack of direct acknowledgment of its predecessor seems like an indirect apology for it, and I think it earns the franchise's goodwill back. If nothing else, the new film - while not radically different on paper - is nonetheless the forging of a more defined identity for both the character and the series. Imperfections and all, The Wolverine seems like a better model for superhero films than a lot of what has become the norm; this one seems like an actual movie, rather than a canvas for a lot of meaningless spectacle.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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