‘The Wolverine’ falls flat despite being an improvement over ‘Origins’

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a catastrophe – a putrid cocktail of laughable dialogue, cartoonish visual effects, and piss-poor screenwriting. It enraged fans and insulted the legacy of the 40-year-old character. Now four years later, studio Fox and star Hugh Jackman are back to give the adamantium-clawed anti-hero another shot at solo success with the long-delayed and generically-titled The Wolverine.

Based on the popular limited series created by Frank Miller and Chris Claremont in which Wolverine travelled to Japan, The Wolverine is set a few years after the events of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Logan (Jackman), still grappling over being forced to kill Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), is now living as a hermit, drifting through the frigid wilderness of the Yukon with alcohol and nightmares of Jean as his only companions.

One night, just as he’s about to lay waste to a group of hunters at a bar, a katana-wielding, red-haired Japanese woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) walks in with a message. She’s been tasked to bring Logan to Japan to meet Yashida, a billionaire industrialist whose life he saved during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in World War 2. Yashida, who is now dying of cancer, makes the perpetually tormented Logan a request: Give him his gift of immortality. In exchange, he will finally get the chance to live a normal life. It’s a tempting offer but Logan isn’t ready to part with his God-given mutant powers.

Soon enough, Logan finds himself caught up within a convoluted political struggle among several warring factions of the Yashida clan. There’s Yashida’s son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), his beautiful granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), a corrupt politician named Noburu (Brian Tee), a mysterious archer named Harada (Will Yun Lee), and Dr. Green (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a slinky emerald-eyed scientist who gives Logan long seductive stares but nothing else. It isn’t immediately clear what they’re all after but one thing’s for certain – neither their interests nor Logan’s continual moping make for very fun, original or even engaging cinema.

To be fair, The Wolverine, which was directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) from a screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, is a major step-up from Origins. Unlike that film, which threw everything but the kitchen sink at the screen in terms of mutants, visual effects and plot lines, The Wolverine is a surprisingly stripped-down, small-scale affair. It’s the first major franchise picture this summer to not concern itself with any world-ending catastrophe (see Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Star Trek into Darkness and Pacific Rim). Perhaps the filmmakers were restricted by a smaller budget or maybe they wanted to distance the film as much as possible from Origins. Whatever the reason, it’s refreshing to see two guys go at each other with blades for a change instead of being hammered into submission for the umpteenth time by endless mind-numbing scenes of demolition derby scale violence.

Alas, despite their valiant effort to make a scaled-down superhero movie driven by intimacy, neither Mangold nor Bomback and Frank are up to the task. The plot, which gets bogged down with convoluted sub-plots, is essentially a variation on the rote and predictable “damsel in distress” narrative with Mariko playing the role of the helpless damsel, and Wolverine her gallant rescuer.

The Wolverine is billed as a character-centric piece yet none of the characters, including Wolverine, are explored enough to keep us invested, or even remotely interested in their fates. The idea of Wolverine losing his gifts, and having to come to terms with his mortality is an intriguing idea but even this theme is only half-processed.

Most disappointing of all is the film’s portrayal of Japanese culture, which is at best, Neanderthal. It shows the country as the land of samurais, ninjas, the yakuza, sushi and strict religious customs and traditions i.e. the vanilla tour-guide version. Worse, most of the Japanese characters amount to nothing more than blatant cultural stereotypes. For example, Mariko is the shy, introverted girl trapped by her family, Harada is the soldier bound by honor, Yukio is your average manic pixie Anime dream girl – a not-so-distant cousin of Rinku Kikuchi’s Mako Mori from Pacific Rim.

Save for an exhilarating set-piece on top of a bullet train, which calls attention to a similar scene in Mission: Impossible, none of the action scenes are memorable either. This is because Mangold, who has never proven himself adept at choreographing action scenes, shoots everything in tight close-ups or extreme long shots with headache-inducing hand-held cameras. The most glaring example of this is an extended chase sequence set on the streets of Tokyo. Mangold castrates all tension or sense of place from the scene by shooting everything from the knee level. What’s the point of a chase sequence if you can’t understand who’s chasing who and where the characters are going? It’s a puzzling decision to say the least.

In the middle of all these flat-lining decisions and mediocrity is Jackman who is once again the saving grace of the film. This is the fifth time the charismatic Australian actor has played the character (six if you count his cameo in X-Men: First Class) and with a seventh appearance scheduled next year in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, the end doesn’t seem to be nigh. While the thought of some actors playing a part for years may grow stale quickly (Johnny Depp in… everything), it isn’t the case with Jackman. Like the best stars, he’s always able to dig deep and find a way to bring something interesting to Wolverine each time he plays it. I wish he’d find a filmmaker with the talent and creativity to dig deep and craft a great solo movie around him as well.

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