Hugh Jackman doesn’t sing in The Wolverine. He growls and prowls. Instead of playing saintly Jean Valjean, Jackman is back for his sixth turn as Logan, the Marvel comics mutant with the pinking-shear fingernails. Not Les Misérables … Les Razorables.
In three X-Men movies and their 2011 prequel, and in his own 2009 showcase X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the genial Aussie stud has harnessed his inner lupine to embody a pretty cool character in a so-so film franchise. Having already moved forward and backward in time in the preceding pictures, Logan goes sideways here: a trip to Tokyo, where he uses his preternatural combat skills against a yakuza clan and flying martial artists. Imagine that Sean Connery’s James Bond, in his 1967 Japanese jaunt You Only Live Twice, had to confront mutants and ninjas (no turtles) and you have a hint of director James Mangold’s mostly sober travelogue with a few zippy action scenes. For Logan and Jackman, The Wolverine is a working vacation, only peripherally related to the central X-Men themes.
Recall that X-Men: First Class appropriated the 1962 Cuban missile crisis for its climax. The Wolverine begins on Aug. 9, 1945, on a Japanese island where the imperial army holds its lone prisoner at the bottom of a deep well. We know from his CV and mammoth, ripped torso that Logan could easily get out; he’s no mere mortal like Bruce Wayne, who in The Dark Knight Rises spent a full half-hour of screen time escaping from a similar stone dungeon. Is Logan taking another vacation? No, he is waiting his chance to do good in an explosive crisis: the atom bomb that falls on nearby Nagasaki. He saves the life of a soldier, Yashida (Ken Yamamura), by shielding him from deadly radiation at the bottom of the well. In gratitude, Yashida offers him a hallowed samurai sword, and …
Logan wakes from this dream-memory, at home, in bed, his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) purring soothing words at his side. We know that she died in X-Men: The Last Stand, so this too is a dream, with Jean offering postmortem wisdom from the afterlife, like Russell Crowe’s Jor-El in Man of Steel. In what passes for Logan’s real life, he has thrown off responsibility and embraced solitude in the snowy Alaskan wilds — Les Blizzardables? A lone wolf, he lives in the deep woods, his only neighbor a grizzly bear — Les Grizzlerables? When he goes into town for supplies, a hunter’s mistreatment of that majestic beast stirs Logan to flaunt his claws — Les Slasherables?
Also on hand is the pink-haired, death-divining Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who has been tracking Logan for a year and persuades him to journey to Japan and renew his acquaintance, 68 years later, with Yashida. Now a wealthy businessman (and played by Hal Yamanouchi), with a vast empire and a host of relatives scheming to commandeer his legacy, Yashida summons Logan to his deathbed for one last gift/request/command: that the X-Man surrender his burden of immortality and transfer it to a zillionaire eager to shoulder it. Logan assures the old man, “You don’t want what I’ve got.” Oh yes he does.
Cue the palace intrigue in the script by Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank. At Yashida’s funeral, hell ensues. Ninjas under the command of Harada (Will Yun Lee) battle yakuza, who kidnap the old man’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Logan gives chase — a long, impressive one, involving Harada’s nifty parkour moves and Logan’s quick trip with Mariko through Ueno Station and onto a bullet train. After easily overwhelming most of the yakuza thugs, he encounters a more resolute one on top of the train, where he and his nimble adversary slash at each other while trying to avoid the many low-hanging obstructions that career a few feet above them. For about five minutes: action paradise.
Like a ronin warrior with no master, Mangold has wandered through many genres: indie drama (Heavy), romantic comedy (Kate & Leopold, with Jackman as the male lead), musical biopic (Walk the Line), western (3:10 to Yuma) and spy adventure (Knight and Day). The director lends an acute sense of place to each project, and here he contrasts Logan’s wolf-out-of-woodlands loner attitude with the Japanese traditions of understatement and at least ostensible family respect. In one scene, a couple dozen ninjas pinion Logan with arrows of steel strings, until he is as perforated as Toshiro Mifune at the end of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.
Some of the film’s Japanese characters appeared 30 years ago in a Marvel comics series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. Since all but three major roles — Logan, Jean and a veteran female adversary, Viper — are taken by Japanese actors, often speaking in their native language, The Wolverine often seems like a Tokyo family drama that Logan has quixotically parachuted into. He is there, really, to test his love for Jean by having a brief fling with Mariko — can you cheat on your dead girlfriend? Okamoto, a Ralph Lauren model making her film-acting debut, holds the screen with her mournful beauty, stark collarbones and one of the movie world’s most gorgeous philtrums. Logan must also contend with Viper (the generically sexy Svetlana Khodchenkova), whose venomous smooch robs Logan of some of his strength — Les Kisserables? When he’s slashed or shot, his wounds don’t instantly heal; he may be approaching the mortality status of old Yashida.
But in any Marvel film, the ladies are secondary; The Wolverine is no Les Mssrables. Guy-centric at its core, the movie is bound to contain at least one example of sadomasochistic heroism — “You aren’t gonna wanna watch this,” Logan tells Yukio before he performs impromptu heart surgery on himself — and must reach a climax of men fighting men. Or, here, Logan confronts a giant robot-man in a tower laboratory borrowed from Dr. Frankenstein.
“What kind of monster are you?” a man asks Logan just before getting skewered. “The Wolverine,” he replies, embracing his destiny — not just on his Tokyo tour but in next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which gets a teasing preview at the end of this movie (and which will be directed by Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two X-Men movies). That’s fine; let all Marvel franchises have as long a life as Logan. But could Singer let Jackman sing a few numbers as the knife-fingered mutant? They could call it Les Scissorables.