Monday, February 17, 2014

X-Mania: The Wolverine

Trailers for The Wolverine didn't give me much hope.  After coming off the relative high of First Class, which came off the relative low of Origins, I had no idea what to expect.  Was this another prequel?  Did it have a good story?  Isn't Hugh Jackman getting tired of playing this character?
Well, the last question is an easy "no."  Hugh Jackman seems to love playing Wolverine, and audiences haven't gotten tired of watching him.  He still gives the role all the gruffness and all the honest emotion the character needs, and for the first time in a while, Jackman was given a script that allowed him to show that.

Taking place after the events of The Last Stand, this is our first honest-to-god SEQUEL that the X-Men franchise has had since 2006.  Logan, the titular Wolverine, is living isolated in the mountains, haunted by memories of Jean Grey, the woman he loved but had to kill.  He's also having flashbacks to his war days, wherein he saved a Japanese soldier named Yashida (Ken Yamamura) from the atomic bomb at Nagasaki.

Now, in the present day, Yahida sends a woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to the United States to find Logan and bring him to Japan.  Yashida, now the most powerful business man in Japan, is dying.  He might be able to take Logan's immortality and live on, leaving Logan with the opportunity to live a normal life.  Without giving too much away (I'll try to make this one more spoiler-free than my previous X-Men reviews), Logan's focus shifts to Yahida's granddaughter Markio, who is being hunted by the Yakuza, the Japanese mob.

Markio and Logan are now on the run, facing ninjas and mobsters and other mutants, one going by the name of Viper.  She implants something in Logan that takes away his healing ability, leaving him more vulnerable than ever just when he is forced to be a protector.
Unusually slow paced and moody, The Wolverine isn't the best in the series, but it goes without saying that it blows Origins out of the water. While some nods to the other series are seen here and there (oh look! Storm's in that partially concealed picture!), the film stands on its own as a self-contained story.

The supporting characters are a bit one note, but they're all given something to do and add to the story.  Mariko's former love interest, who I like to call Japanese Hawkeye, is probably underused, but he adds interest to the story anyway. Yukio, with her strange facial features and badass swordsmanship, is a good comic foil for Logan, and I could feel the actors' chemistry.  I can't quite say the same for Logan and Mariko.  The actors are very good, and the script supports the romance, but there's a bit of a distracting age difference between the actors that didn't really sit well with me personally.

The best parts of the film revolve around Logan's guilt about killing Jean and the isolated situation he's found himself in. Whether it was intentional or not, Japan, the country isolated from the rest of Asia, is a great place to put the character. He's clearly out of his element, and Hugh Jackman captures it in subtle ways rather than though easy gags. He mispronounces Japanese words, looks generally pissed off at the things he doesn't understand, and doesn't necessarily care about Japanese customs. He does what the character "would" do, as opposed to how he acted in Origins (a mindless, revenge-seeking zombie).

Jean Grey (reprised by Famke Janssen) is used really well here, giving the audience a glimpse into Logan's subconscious when he has to make the decision about giving up his power.  It was a very nice surprise to have the character make an appearance, feature the original actress, and actually serve the story.  Yeah, maybe the creep factor could have been toned down a bit, but I digress.

Amidst the Japanese soap opera that Wolverine has found himself in, there are some very cool action scenes.  A few implement the dreaded shaky-cam effect to add "tension," but only make it hard to see what's happening. The bullet train sequence is pretty great though.  The CGI effects are nothing amazing, but they aren't overused or too intrusive.  I'm still a sucker for a good old-fashioned practical effect, so I greatly appreciated Japanese Hawkeye's parkouring on the rooftops of Tokyo.  It seems to be done on location without green screen effects, so kudos to the production crew for making that happen.

A few thing hold The Wolverine back in unfortunately big ways.  Viper is a terrible villain, given atrocious dialogue (spouting, "He's mortal now. He has no healing ability. I did that," when the audience already knows) and an actress who can't decide on a goddamn accent.  Plus her outfits look like a bad Poison Ivy cosplayer designed them.  Minor thing.

I wasn't thrilled by the ending, which has a few rather silly elements.  Without giving away too much, you can see the twist coming an hour away.  That reveal needed to come a lot sooner so that the ending could have been tighter and more effective.  The climactic showdown has its cool moments, but overall, it should have been less silly.  As a side note, more could have been done with a story that focuses on Logan losing his healing ability, but unfortunately bullets fly into him right and left and he basically limps them off.  Yes, we do see that he gets medical treatment in one scene, but his vulnerability is stated in dialogue more than it's shown onscreen.

In addition to the shaky cam stuff, many movies today are stuck on close-ups, close-ups, and more close-ups. The Wolverine is unfortunately stuck in this habit of only showing close-ups of characters constantly, and when you see a film like this on the big screen, it's pretty disappointing. Between this and Les Miserables, I could sculpt Hugh Jackman's face from memory.  Why not pull back and let us really see Japan?  Get a sense of the space, let the movie breathe for god's sake.  The result of all this gives the film an unfortunately claustrophobic feel, and I don't think that was director James Mangold's intention.

Making a better movie than Origins was not a difficult bar to clear, but I must say it was great to breath a sigh of relief anyway when I could see how much The Wolverine did not suck. There are ideas, characters, stories, amidst action, special effects, and fun. Definitely not the kind of "fun" present in the first two films, or hell, even First Class, but solid entertainment all the same.  Amongst other superhero movies that came out in the summer of 2013, this was a middle-of-the-road kind of movie; not as good as Iron Man 3, but definitely better than Man of Steel.  It's an enjoyable Wolverine adventure that finally gave us some closure to the Jean/Logan story and gave us a pulpy Japanese melodrama at the same time.

Let's see, I got the plot, the pros, the cons, the conclusion ... oh yes ... THE ENDING STINGER WAS WORTH THE PRICE OF ADMISSION ALONE.  Holy shit, it was like ... and then ... they came ... at the airport ...gaaawww ... I don't want to give it away, but I freaked out like a proper fanboy when the mid-credits stinger came around.  Let's just say that it got me very excited for the next film in the series, X-Men: Days of Future Past.  It comes out later this year, and expectations are stupidly high.