'Wolverine' Digs His Claws into a Daring, Deliberate Spinoff

Directed by: James Mangold; Runtime: 138 minutes (extended)
Grade: B

Over the past several years, the X-Men film universe has experienced a wide range of peaks and valleys, especially when it comes to Wolverine. While fans of the original series had some the bad taste left by The Last Stand cleansed by Matthew Vaughn's X-Men: First Class, essentially a reboot that explores the heroes' origins, the exploits of the immortal, health-regenerating beast with adamantium claws and a somber outlook fizzled with the dull and detached X-Men Origins: Wolverine. From the early points in its production when Darren Aronofsky and Christopher McQuarrie had thrown their hats in the ring, this latest chapter in the character's arc seemed engineered to break from the mold and soldier on in a brave direction, far from the past six years of stumbles. My enthusiasm levels fluctuated once 3:10 to Yuma and Knight and Day's James Mangold took over as director, but perhaps that was premature: he's still delivered something daring and largely absorbing in The Wolverine, elevating the character with a blockbuster that smartly diverges from the bloat plaguing most comic-book films.

Fitting somewhere between McQuarrie's original script ideas and rewrites from Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) and Scott Frank (The Lookout), The Wolverine is closer to the type of film that Origins should've been, one more interested in the personal drama of Logan's anguish and the drawbacks of his mutation. After flashbacks to his experiences in World War II where he saved a prominent Japanese officer, the story begins with Logan secluded in the Canadian wilderness after the events of The Last Stand, though the only significance of this post-event period would be the death of Jean Grey (and her recurring presence in his dreams). Soon after our reintroduction, a quirky, clairvoyant, katana-toting red-haired Japanese woman, Yukio (Rila Fukushima), hunts Logan down to deliver a message about the officer, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), he once saved, inviting him to Japan for a visit before the man's death. Once he arrives, however, it's revealed that Yashida, now the owner of a substantial technology firm, instead has an offer for the mutant: to remove his immortality and regeneration, allowing him to live a normal life ... then pass away

Consider for a moment that a film dedicated to one member of the X-men focuses on the depletion of his mutant abilities and credibly placing him, without his comrades, in a strange land. While other standard superhero elements arise as The Wolverine progresses (some jammed in to make it more comic-booky), the core idea ventures into unconventional territory that intentionally subverts the expectations one might have about this kind of film: while undeniably important, superhuman powers are rarely in use. Eventually, and this is only a mild spoiler given the film's obvious purposes, Logan does experience the effects of drained powers as a struggle -- an assassination attempt -- erupts within the Yashida clan that'd be a whole lot easier to sort out if he were at full strength. This leaves him in a state where dealing with human aggressors and their artillery becomes an actual ordeal, forcing him in conflict with brutal, street-wise Yakuza and agile members of a ninja organization.

Therefore, most of the action in The Wolverine stays grounded since the playing field has been somewhat leveled due to Logan's handicap -- well, aside from the fact that he can still whip out his claws and soldier on after taking bullets. Those looking for an out-and-out superhero film might struggle with what James Mangold has competently fused together here: aside from one outlandish sequence involving a bullet train, a significant amount of the film's activity revolves around an ailing mutant in brawls that aren't too far removed from standard martial-arts / gangster fare. Moreover, Logan isn't out to save the world in this scenario, where the pieces put in motion encompass a more confined, intimate scope involving corporate bureaucracy and the conflict within a Japanese family's hierarchy. In place of this lack of Weapon X power-fantasy, the action takes on a brutal, sobering attitude that emphasizes Logan's reliance on brute force and durability over technique, with sturdy photography and tight editing that reveals what happens when his bullheaded tactics aren't as useful.

Interestingly, the brand of action enhances Logan's participation in the Yashida-clan drama instead of doling out mindless blade-snicking set-pieces, again designed to bring the focus back to him as a conflicted individual instead of merely a nomadic antihero destined to save the day. Between packing on a significant amount of muscle and the opportunities for him to brood over his lost love and obscured purpose, Hugh Jackman nails this more ominous and bestial form of Wolverine, significantly improving upon the persona he's become famous for over the years. The way he bridges the gap between his steely despondence while navigating through Japan and his warmer, open presence during the Jean Grey flashbacks provides an interesting outlook on his mentality, enhancing the relationship that forms between Logan and Yashida's granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the target of the Yakuza assassination attempt and a somewhat shallow rendering of a character who coaxes intimacy back out of the beast.

The Wolverine's script doesn't neglect the Japanese setting, either, namely incorporating it as an intriguing mode of introspection around how Logan has lost his way. Surface-level details like the cubic love hotels in Tokyo and the bombing site at Nagasaki add expected tones to the story, sure, while the old-world feel of the Yashida clan's grand Japanese manor and waterside cottage create an environment rich with history, complete with sparring samurais and meaningful murals on the walls that juxtapose with modern-day sketches and technology. It's the introduction of the restless spirit of the beast and the aimless nature of a ronin that apply directly to the mutant's internal turmoil, though. They add that layer of complexity to his gruff personality and history that I would've liked to have seen in Origins: Wolverine, following up nicely to the events in X2 and/or The Last Stand by using that trauma to focus on something with dramatic weight, as well as reverence to the character's foundation in the books.

Despite feeling more enthusiastic than expected about Mangold's serious take on Wolverine, it's also not difficult to pinpoint where the film buckles under the weight of hokey comic-book contrivances and excess, from how Logan loses (and eventually regains) his powers to the flimsy and somewhat disposable presence of Dr. "Viper" Green (Svetlana Khodchenkova) as an extension of the primary antagonistic force. That all leads to a boisterous finale that, despite delivering hard-hitting goods that'll satisfy those yearning for traditional mutant fisticuffs and a few references, becomes a pretty out-there, loose-logic bookend to this surprisingly anchored departure from that sort of thing. To the end, though, despite the zaniness, The Wolverine ultimately sticks it out as one of the grittier portrayals of the boorish antihero. It's a pity that we weren't able to see the more avant-garde version of Logan's journey to Japan that was considered, but Mangold still took a reasonable stab at breaking down conventions here.

So, What's the Deal with the Extended Cut?

As of the middle of November or so, two cuts of The Wolverine have been floating around: the theatrical cut (2:06:08) and a twelve-minute longer extended cut (2:18:05) screened for the public and available on-demand, now also out on Blu-ray as an "extra" tossed in with the film's 3D presentation. While the differences are minimal and somewhat indulgent, they do make an impact that'll ensure that it's the cut I'll personally view in the future. Several quick instances of added gore and language dirty things up to fit the "unrated" title, as well as a few brief but consequential bits of extra character development, but it also has a pair of significant additions that hammer the point home: a cut sequence during the love hotel period in Tokyo, which established Mariko's ability to throw knives/blades; and a brutal, arterial-spraying segment inserted at the beginning of the film's big ninja-vs.-Wolverine brawl, involving an intense snow machine and stronger emphasis on Yukio's assistance. The ending, however, has stayed intact; the easter egg featuring Logan's costume has not been added. What this cut does is move Mangold's film a bit closer to earning an R-rating, despite the content ultimately achieving the same purposes.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to DVDTalk.com: [Click Here]


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