Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Wolverine (2013) – Review

Review: The Wolverine takes a more personal look at the character – well, at least for the first two acts – bringing something a bit different and welcomed to the superhero genre. The film is about a reclusive, emotionally drained Logan in the wake of the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (no, he is not in hiding due to the sheer terribleness of that film, but rather due to his role in the death of Jean Grey – the woman he loved). He no longer wants to hurt anyone, but still feels a sense of justice that gets him into trouble. Meanwhile, Yashida, a Japanese businessman that Logan saved from the bombing of Nagasaki during WWII, is on his deathbed, wishing to repay all his debts. He sends Yukio (a mutant with the power to foresee a person’s death) to find Logan and bring him to Japan. She does, and he reluctantly agrees to come. Yashida offers Logan a way to finally shed his immortality and lead a normal life. Yashida has become the most powerful man in Japan and has figured out a way to transfer Logan’s abilities to himself through his corporation’s research (and the help of a mutant named Viper). Logan refuses and his longtime friend passes away, leaving everything to his granddaughter Mariko, circumventing his ambitious son Shingen (who feels betrayed). Mariko is now a target, both from her father and outside forces. Yashida was in a power struggle with the Triads. His fight has now become her fight. She is innocent and thus Logan feels compelled to protect her. However, the longer he stays in Japan, the more he comes to realize that not everything is as it seems.

The X-Men franchise (along with Spider-Man and Batman Begins) launched the current boon of superhero films that now dominate ever summer movie season (after Batman & Robin all but killed the genre in the late 1990s). And yet, the series has never quite found its way with the initial trilogy succumbing to awful casting (save for Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart), bad writing/storytelling, and in the end very poor directing. Wolverine is assumed to be the franchise’s biggest character, and was thus spun-off into his own X-Men Origins story (only for that to be another step backwards for the series). While the films continued to be successful at the box office, fan and critical acclaim had become all but nonexistent. X-Men: First Class saw the series rebooted (in a sense) with strong casting, good writing, and sure direction, bringing the franchise back from the dead. With The Wolverine, director James Mangold has all this history to contend with as he makes what is ultimately a one-off, self-contained story.

What works well with Mangold’s film is that primarily the story focuses on Logan’s emotional journey, interwoven with some exciting action set pieces (for example: the bullet train scene is fantastic). Mangold digs deeper into the character than audiences are typically accustomed to in a summer blockbuster/superhero movie (aside from the good ones). For once, Wolverine is not just a cool character on screen that does action stuff with big claws, but rather a fully fleshed out character that the audience can relate to, understand what motivates him, and get behind in more than just a superficial manner. The action, in this sense, very much plays a secondary role – almost to the point of distraction – in the film, as Logan’s journey and his relationship with Mariko is far more dramatically engaging.

But, as seemingly it must as a summer blockbuster, the film dissolves into a somewhat more generic action film in the third act (because that is what the audience wants, or so think studio executives). The first two acts are very strong, focusing wholly on character, while the third act is just an extended action sequence with much of the built-up emotional energy dissipating as the film relies on genre troupes and disregards its characters to the sidelines. To some extent, it feels like the big action ending was a compromise for the rest of the film being more character driven, made by Mangold in the face of studio pressure (whether or not this is the case is unknown, this is merely my guess).

Ultimately, the inclusion of the Silver Samurai serves no dramatic purpose and thus hurts the narrative arch of the film. Its inclusion is made to raise the stakes, action wise, giving Logan a more intimidating enemy to defeat. This would be fine in a different film, but it goes against the tone and narrative style established in the first two acts. The Wolverine is not a film about Logan fighting an exterior monster, but his own interior demons. By switching up the tone and narrative trajectory in the third act, most of the characters and the complex relationships being built throughout the first two acts kind of fall by the wayside making room for big action moments. In the end, it all feels a bit underwhelming and incomplete, which holds this back from being what could have been one of the better superhero films (and one of the best of the summer). It just does not have those necessary impactful moments that the third act of a film should deliver, because it is essentially a different film as soon as Logan gets on the motorcycle and heads up the mountain to Yashida’s hometown.

With all that said, however, The Wolverine is still a very entertaining blockbuster, filled with exciting moments (I thought the bombing of Nagasaki was particularly impressive and effective from both a visual and emotional standpoint – showing the power and cruelty of man in a series that has predominately focused on man’s fear of the power that mutants hold) and stronger than expected performances and characters. It is probably the strongest of all the original-cast X-Men films.

Setting the film is Japan also is one of the film’s stronger aspects. Visually, it allows the X-Men franchise to explore a world, style, and set of values that the audience has not yet seen cinematically with these characters. Mangold embraces the setting wonderfully, as the film has a number of very beautiful locations. It also enables the audience to further connect with Logan, as he is alone in a foreign place that he does not understand and does not fit (as this world is new and different for the audience as well, in many cases).

The film features multiple female characters as well, which on its own in something refreshing for a summer blockbuster. But even more surprising, these female characters are not just there in subservient roles, each of them adds something to the narrative (and, for me at least, Mariko and Yukio are probably the film’s best characters).

The Wolverine does and is what moviegoers have come to expect from summer blockbusters. It is very entertaining. It does have some strong action set pieces. It tells its story economically. It even takes a character, in his fifth full outing, and digs deeper into him dramatically, giving the audience something fresh. By this regard, it is a successful film (and one that I liked a lot). But, at the end of the day, it stumbles when it could have been great. It takes the easy road of spectacle instead of staying the course for the more fulfilling and poignant emotional payoff, which leaves the film feeling a bit disappointing (once the sheer awesomeness and excitement of the fantastic post-credit scene setting up Days of Future Past wears off).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: James Mangold is a veteran Hollywood director. With The Wolverine, he turns in another solid entertaining film, which is really all one can ask from such a director. It would have been nice to have seen a third act in which the characters were still center stage instead of the spectacle, however, as Mangold’s strongest aspect as a director is garnering great performances (see Walk the Line) and creating dynamic dramatic moments between them (and really, that describes the best parts of The Wolverine).

Marco Beltrami turns in a fairly generic action-movie score, but it does have some good moments especially when it takes on a more authentic-sounding tone. It does its job though, reinforcing the dramatic moments and propping up the big action scenes. Ross Emery’s cinematography is very good in the film. Much of the film is dark and rainy, and Emery use of minimal light in these moments works well in capturing the dramatic tone. And by contrast, the film is very beautiful in other moments, this juxtaposition reflecting Logan’s own inner struggle for peace. However, the greatest achievement of the film is Francois Audouy’s production design. Yashida’s house, the entire Nagasaki sequence, the hilarious ‘sex hotel’ – each of these sets stands out as something memorable in the film.

The Wolverine also has a strong set of performances across the board. Mangold inherited Famke Janssen and Hugh Jackman as Jean Grey and Logan respectively from the X-Men series, and sadly they are miscast in those roles. Here, however, he gets good work out of both of them, as he again focuses more on the characters allowing each to have more of a dramatic and emotional part to bring to life. Janssen is good playing Logan’s spirit guide of sorts through his journey, as he tries to forgive himself for her death. Jackman has never been better as Logan (and is closer than he has ever been to matching the character in the comics – the reluctant blunt-force weapon). He is able to engage the audience on an emotional level, bringing them fully into the narrative. Brian Tee and Svetlana Khodchenkova offer some good moments in their small supporting roles. Ken Yamamura and Hal Yamanouchi play Yashida (young and old respectively), and bring emotional weight and an urgency to him that works very well. Hiroyuki Sanada is (as always) brilliant as Shingen, an overbearing father and scorned son. If only he had more to do in the film. Rila Fukushima and Tao Okamoto each make their cinematic debut, playing Yukio and Mariko, and to some degree stealing the film. Rukushima is a lot of fun as a tough street punk type who is also loyal to her core, while Okamoto steals the audience’s heart, as she epitomizes innocence and hope. But what is great about these two women and their performances is that they also bring wonderful strength to their roles, budding from their inner resolve. It is refreshing to see this in a summer blockbuster.

Summary & score: As a one-off, self-contained character driven superhero film The Wolverine works extremely well, but in its third act it just reverts back into a generic summer blockbuster spectacle movie (which is really too bad) undoing a lot of, but not all, the good. 7/10

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