James Mangold | 138 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Australia / English & Japanese | 12
Rather than a sequel to the poorly-received X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which I mistakenly gave four stars back when it was in cinemas — hey, everyone else was too harsh), Fox’s X-Men film franchise here jumps back to the present day (after a ’60s aside for the excellent First Class) for the first time since 2006, to see what happened to fan-favourite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) after he (spoilers!) killed the love of his life to save the world in poorly-received (though, again, it’s not as bad as most people think) X-Men trilogy-closer The Last Stand.
We catch up with Logan as a recluse in the wilds of his native Canada. He’s soon sought out by swordswoman Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who has been sent to bring him to Japan. There, a man whose life Logan saved in World War II (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) has become a technology giant, and wants to offer Wolverine the one thing no one else has: the removal of his healing factor, and with it the chance to finally die a normal death. Of course things aren’t all they appear, with numerous threats emerging to the old man, to his family — including his daughter, and Logan’s love interest, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) — and, of course, to everyone’s favourite beclawed mutant.
For the most part, The Wolverine feels refreshingly different to other superhero movies. That’s largely thanks to its Japanese setting and supporting cast, the primary element inherited from the acclaimed Chris Claremont/Frank Miller comic book miniseries that loosely inspired the film (not that anyone gets a credit for that). Those might sound like superficial differences, but the change of faces, scenery and culture seems to have infused the film’s attitude. Couple that with a plot that is more of a thriller than one of the usual three Superhero Movie storylines, and the end result is a moderately unique movie. OK, it doesn’t ooze originality, but nor does it feel quite like your run-of-the-mill powered-people-punch-each-other comic book yarn.
Indeed, in places it threatens to become a proper character study. Although almost all of the X-Men movies have focused on Logan, it’s debatable how much they’ve dug in to him as a person before now — they’ve not dwelt on what his mutation means for his life or personality, merely used his memory loss as the chance for a mystery. There’s lots more exploration of the former here, at least by the standards of a summer blockbuster; and alongside that, the plot incorporates issues of honour and familial responsibility, which are suitably echoed by the Japanese setting and culture.
While it may be Jackman’s film — something only emphasised by a sprawling array of new characters that there isn’t quite enough time for — he’s not the only one who stands out. It’s Fukushima and Okamoto who are memorable in particular, and having such effective female characters once again distances the film from the majority of its genre brethren. It seems a shame neither feature in Days of Future Past — not that there’d be room for them, I suppose — but if the mooted third Wolverine solo outing comes to pass, I hope one or both are back.
Talking of women, you can’t overlook Logan’s lost love, Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey. Considering the build-up pitched The Wolverine as a standalone film, with perhaps the occasional nod to the wider X-universe, including rumours of a Jean cameo, the final film is surprisingly tied-in to previous events: there’s actually loads of Jean (how? Well…), and Wolverine’s personal journey is very much grounded in the events of The Last Stand. I’m sure you could watch this without having seen or remembered a previous X-movie, because the bulk of the plot is indeed standalone, but the emotional journey is invested in what came before.
Unfortunately, a couple of things spoil the party — for starters, another woman: as Viper-lady, Svetlana Khodchenkova camps it up too much. When the rest of the film is more serious, almost plain dramatic in places, her OTT comic book stylings jar uncomfortably. It doesn’t help that the movie is bizarrely overstuffed with villains. Considering the general dramatic emphasis, it needs them even less than usual; plus, when it’s been observed for over 15 years (i.e. since Batman & Robin) that a superhero movie suffers under the weight of too many antagonists, there’s no excuse for it anymore.
More of a let down is the regular-superhero-schtick climax. A mix of muddled storytelling (things go unexplained, then are suddenly clarified in a rush of exposition) and a trashy “make the villain stronger, then punch him lots” escalation of action, it’s a disappointing end to a film that has otherwise felt on course for “genre classic”-level distinctiveness. Without seeing all the behind-the-scenes goings-on it’s difficult to know whose fault this was, but it’s equally difficult to imagine the screenplay that Darren Aronofsky (far from your regular blockbuster director) described as “a terrific script” could have concluded this way; and knowing that his replacement, James Mangold, fiddled with the script before shooting commenced… well, draw your own conclusions.
Still, other technical elements shine: there’s beautiful cinematography from Ross Emery, and Marco Beltrami’s score is nice — no bit particularly sticks in my mind, but it felt suitably evocative. Even if the climax disappoints, there’s a smattering of entertaining action sequences before that, including some great claws-on-sword duelling. Some of this has been amped for the twelve-minutes-longer extended cut, though a lot of that additional time actually goes to the dramatic side of things, as detailed here. There are 65 alterations in all, which frankly I couldn’t be bothered to read through. (However, I noticed at least three uses of the F-word, a number which I believe America’s tick-box classification system grants an automatic R. In the UK it seems such antics can be allowed to slide at a 12.)
The Wolverine isn’t quite the movie it could have been; nor, I think, quite the one the makers hoped they were producing. Jackman has intimated since that it’s studio interference that pushes for silly-big action sequences and the like, but that fan feedback might slowly be winning them around to the things viewers actually care about. Whether that’s true or not, I guess we’ll see in the next instalment…
X-Men: Days of Future Past is released in the UK today, the US tomorrow, and pretty much everywhere else at some point this week. The next Wolverine movie is currently scheduled for release on 3rd March 2017.