Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Wolverine (2013)

The Wolverine marks Hugh Jackman's fourth (fifth if you insist on counting the shameless cameo in First Class) outing as the mutton-chopped mutant and, after the disappointing Origins four years ago, it had a lot to prove. For those who have read my brief history of X-Men movies will know, I didn't hate Origins as much as the average person appeared to. So yes, the plot was weak and confused about what it was trying to do. Yes, there were a lot of characters added and destroyed without any attempt to give them any depth. However, despite the huge list of faults, I sort of enjoyed it. Especially after the travesty that was Brett Ratner's The Last Stand. Yes, it may have something to do with my unquenching love of Remy LeBeau but there were some good moments. If nothing else, I certainly think there was enough to Origins to suggest that a Wolverine centric film was possible. Despite the many differing opinions that came out after its release. So there was really just one major question that director James Mangold and co needed to address: would that film be The Wolverine?

Unlike its predecessor which, obviously, took a look into Logan's lengthy past, The Wolverine picks up some time after the events of Last Stand. It starts off in fairly similar territory to First Class where, instead of an angry and brooding Magneto seeking vengeance, we find Logan doing his best Grizzly Man impression. Plagued by heavenly visions of his lost love, an even hairier than normal Wolverine spends his days mooching about in the mountains feeling sorry for himself with a bear serving as his only friend. After his companion meets a very grizzly end we see a glimpse of the mutant we remember when Logan comes out of hiding to seek revenge on the hunter's responsible.

The plot then moves us to Japan after the mysterious Yukio (Rila Fukushima) whisks our hero off to the bedside of her dying employer, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi). Through several flashbacks we learn that Logan saved Yashida from the atomic bombing of Nagasaki and now, as the old man lies dying, he wishes to say his goodbye face to face. Rather than simply presenting a sword to his saviour, he offers to take on Logan's accursed healing ability in order to provide him with a mortal existence. For the sake of making a substantial film, Wolverine refuses and the old man dies hours later. In the preceding days all hell breaks lose and the grumpy metallic mutant must race through a series of stereotypically Japanese settings in order to protect Yashida's meek granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from pretty much everyone else in Japan.

One of the greatest things about anything involving Wolverine is Hugh Jackman. His dedication to and love for this character is clear to see. Especially when he finds himself more vulnerable than he is used to and has to deal with the consequences of a possible mortal existence. This film, more than his previous outings, gives Jackman the chance to give the world's favourite mutant a human side. It's Jackman's own likeability and clear enjoyment of everything he's asked to do that has led to the character being so well received by audiences. Just like Robert Downey Jr. has become synonymous Iron Man, Hugh Jackman is Wolverine. There has never been a hint that he has given anything less to this role than he would to a more traditional genre and it's always fun to watch him striking down his enemies with his galvanised bone claws. He puts his all into the role. Something that can be most obviously seen in his overly ripped new body. It's obviously a source of great pride for both the actor and the film-makers as every scene Logan stars in there seems to be a problem with his shirt staying in place.

Although that might have something to do with the sheer number of fights his manages to get himself into. They come so thick and fast that it becomes painfully obvious that Mangold had such a little amount of faith in the overall product that he felt the need to distract his audience with an endless supply of over-the-top action sequences. That is not to say that these aren't enjoyable moments. The film's stand-out sequence takes place a top the speeding bullet train where Logan must face off against a gaggle of evilly inclined men whilst avoiding the many obstacles along the way. Yes, it may be nothing more than a CGI fuelled romp but it is one of the best 'fighting on a train' moments in cinematic history. Logan really gets the chance to dig his claws in and show just what he is capable of.

Of course, the problem with a standalone Wolverine film isn't the character himself as many have suggested. The major problem is laziness. Just like Captain Jack from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Wolverine became a firm favourite with fans which has turned him into nothing more than a way to bring money in. Neither The Wolverine nor his first solo outing have been given the care and attention that the previous instalments were given. Clearly Mangold wasn't as invested in the project as he should have been and his direction is at best lacklustre and at worst outrageously laughable. It's easy to understand why the positive moments are forgotten when you compare them to the worst. Take for example the moment when Wolverine is struggling to save Mariko while ninjas impale him with poisoned arrows. Seeing Logan slowly make his way up the hill with ropes coming off his back like a freaky rope hedgehog is one of the stupidest scenes I'll probably ever see on film. You have to question what Mangold thought he was doing in these moments.

Like the decision to include those dream sequences where Logan discusses his issues with an ethereal Jean Grey. Famke Janssen turns up wearing a slinky white negligee to remind us all why Logan was undertaking a hermit existence during the first section. Aside from getting the chance to place a camera in direct sight of the dearly departed Jean's chest, these scenes add little to the overall narrative. If anything they are distracting and cloying. It's a horrible clich├ęd and lazy method to give the main character some depth and emotional turmoil. These scenes become nothing more than a horribly cheesy and silly way to keep the film within the canon and attempt to prove that there is a softer side beneath the muscles and glower.

When it comes to The Wolverine the biggest disappointment has to be the lack of convincing villain. Yukio and, at a pinch, Mariko aside the supporting cast have no character development. The list of enemies working against Wolverine is a long one and includes an incredibly suspect blonde doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a ninja bowman Harada (Will Yun Lee) and Mariko's jealous sword-wielding father (Hiroyuki Sanada). Although it never really becomes clear what is motivating any of them. In fact, in some cases their motivations seem to conflict with their actions so it is completely incomprehensible why they make the choices they do. As cool as Harada seems when he is introduced wearing a hoodie, flinging arrows at baddies and racing across rooftops, he quickly becomes a pointless addition to the plot. On the one hand he is serving Yashida and on the other he is in love with Mariko; how he decides to follow creepy blonde doctor is an utter mystery.

Blonde doctor has way more potential once she reveals herself to be Viper (or at least a terrible version of Viper) but, once again she is given no real chance to develop. There is never a point where she seems as though she's going to be a real danger. She has very little memorable moments aside from that one fairly gross scene where she sheds her skin. We know nothing about where she came from or why she is doing what she's doing. A superhero film needs more than just a great protagonist and with antagonists like this you have to ask why Wolverine even bothered making the effort.

In fact, the only welcome new addition to the cast is Fukushima as the very manga Yukio. A mutant with the ability to see the moment when a person dies she is also very handy with a sword. With her shocking red hair and anime schoolgirl-inspired clothing, she provides a much needed injection of energy and excitement. Watching her whip and weave and slice her enemies is both an energetic feat and a treat for the eyes. It looks set to be a great partnership is she makes it into any following X-Men/Wolverine projects.

Undoubtedly she is one of only good things to come out of the uninspired final act is her showdown with Viper. Without her it simply descends into a chaotic mix of robots, ninjas and plot twists that have been signposted since before the opening credits. Clearly by this point the makers had decided that their audience were so exhausted with the previous mass of fights that the final showdown didn't matter... provided you amp up the fighting and the danger. Logan is basically going through the motions and trying to get out of here as soon as possible.

Which is exactly the feeling that most of the critics had upon watching. For my part I can understand why they felt disappointed in this second attempt to give Wolverine a solo film that he deserved. It's better than Origins but, compared to the great X-Men ensemble pieces this just doesn't seem good enough. Although, I can't deny that I bloody enjoyed this film. As you've just read, I had my issues with the overall slickness and quality of the film but, ultimately, I left feeling satisfied enough. I mean you've got Wolverine facing off against ninja and yakuza for 2 hours. How can that fail to provide even a modicum of excitement in an audience of comic book fans?

It falls down because, in an age of incredibly good superhero movies, Mangold and his team just didn't give the genre the care and attention it deserved. The narrative is mechanical, the dialogue is fairly uninspired and most of the characters are mainly used for window-dressing. Thankfully this film has one major lifeline in the shape of Hugh Jackman. He's played Logan since 2000 and it's become second nature to him. Despite obviously being able to pull of a performance without any effort he still plays the role with as much gusto and effort as he would in the early days. This is Wolverine's film and, I for one, hope we see more of the man with metal bones for a few more outings... just without the underlying impression that this is simply about exploiting fans for as little effort as possible.

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