“To be, or not” ... let’s make it “To slash, or not to slash.” Because this latest X-Men movie is a lot more existential than recent installments in this comic book series have been.
“The Wolverine,” opening Friday, is nothing if not ambitious – a moody, haunted tale of Logan the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) coping with his ghosts and settling old debts – in Japan, no less. It’s the perfect country for a guy who appreciates a good, sharp blade.
And if this James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) take on the superhero franchise stumbles up blind alleys, overreaches and turns long and repetitious by its bloody-bland predictable third act, at least it gives Jackman something worth chewing over for the first 90 minutes.
We first see our man Logan in solitary, stuck in a well in a Japanese POW camp at the end of World War II. His captors panic at the sight of a couple of B-29 bombers, and one frees the American prisoners, very uncharacteristic behavior historically, but hey, this is comic book history. Logan shields the guard when the big blast comes because this turns out to be Nagasaki, where the second atomic bomb was detonated to force Japan’s surrender.
Decades later, the immortal mutant with the Adamantium knives in his fists is summoned to the side of the man he saved by a martial arts pixie (Rila Fukushima).
“Eternity can be a curse,” the dying old man (Hal Yamanouchi), now a billionaire, speculates. “A man can run out of things to live for.” He offers his savior the chance to lose his immortality, to live a normal life span without the super-healing powers and strength that make the very idea that Wolverine would have ever been a prisoner of war absurd.
Wolverine finds himself mixed up in the succession between the dying man and his heirs. The Japanese mob, the Yakuza, is trying to nab the supermodel-thin granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), and Wolverine chases her cross-country to protect her.
Wolverine takes his place within Japanese culture as a Ronin, a loner, a samurai without a leader or purpose. He’s dreaming a lot about the mutant he loved but had to kill (Famke Janssen) and fretting over the dying old man’s doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a fork-tongued devil so thin she makes Mariko consider a diet. And then his powers start to fail him.
Mangold sets up an interesting premise – an immortal tired of living faced with mortality. How brave can Wolverine be when the bullets leave permanent holes, when every arrow fired by a ninja could kill and every slashing-fight against samurai sword-wielding foes could be his last?
Then the movie stumbles into the curse of the feeble villains – none worthy of Wolverine’s knives – and the trap of endless fights. The action sequences are grimly violent and entertaining, but there is no one written or cast in this worthy of his best efforts.
Jackman has great presence in this role, brooding, sulking, wisecracking to alarmed airport metal detector operators.
This “Wolverine” gets our hopes up and falls short. If you’re the sort who stays through the credits and swoons over whatever variation on the “Nobody ever dies in Marvelland” the tease for the next film promises, this is for you. For anybody with a more demanding palette, even of a summer comic book movie, “The Wolverine” may leave you wanting the higher-minded movie this one promised to be – for a while.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Will Yun Lee, Famke Janssen, Tao Okamoto
Director: James Mangold
Running time: 122 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language.
The Lowdown: Summoned to Japan by an old acquaintance, Wolverine becomes embroiled in a conflict that forces him to confront his own demons.