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Director James Mangold brings a furrowed-brow solemnity to the comic-book world of The Wolverine, the sixth big-screen outing for Marvel’s blade-fisted antihero and one that scratches and claws against the law of diminishing returns always destined to beset the splintering X-Men franchise. As a follow-up of sorts to an origin story spun off from a trilogy, Fox’s 3D summer tentpole is, despite its obvious ambition, hardly a game-changer. Coming on the heels of the woebegone shambles that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which still managed to earn more than $373 million worldwide), it is, however, a step forward for Hugh Jackman’s scowly, mutton-chopped mutant, who here finds himself wrestling with his inner demons and a cavalcade of ninjas and inked-up yakuza in modern-day Japan.
Dialing back the city-razing CG mayhem of recent superhero fare in favor of more grounded action, this noir-ish, unusually intimate take still has the requisite sockadelic set pieces to guarantee an adamantium-plated hit upon its global rollout beginning July 24. It opens in the U.S. July 26.
Mark Bomback and Scott Frank’s screenplay follows Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s popular Japan-set comic-book arc from 1982, but Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) seeks to distance his film from those pulpy beginnings by embedding his protagonist in a conventional, near bromidic drama of familial squabbling, corruption and corporate greed.
Until a third act that collapses in a harebrained heap, the director largely succeeds in keeping the more cartoonish aspects at bay, roughing up the surface with organically staged fight scenes and, crucially, raising the stakes by stripping his hitherto indestructible hero of his self-healing powers.
Figuratively declawed, the Wolverine stumbles and bleeds, that intricately sculpted (and frequently shirtless) body weakened and hurting in tune with his inner torment.
Eternity’s a curse for Logan/the Wolverine (Jackman) who, following the dissolution of the mutant ensemble in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, has let himself go, living “hirsutely” in the Canadian mountains with only a separated-at-birth grizzly bear for company. He is haunted by the memory of being forced to kill his Phoenix-possessed former lover, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who is clad in a diaphanous negligee as she appears to Logan in a series of unfortunately cheesy dream sequences. But an unexpected offer to relieve him of his immortality appears like a kindness.
Bringing this proposal from the former Japanese soldier whose life Logan saved at the end of World War II is a cool-kid emissary in the form of cherry-haired Yukio (Japanese fashion model Rila Fukushima).
Yukio, a katana-wielding assassin with her own intriguing backstory, accompanies Logan to Tokyo, where he meets his would-be benefactor, Lord Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), now an elderly mega-rich industrialist who doesn’t want to die.
Logan gets a makeover (he’s shaved, scoured and disinfected in one of the film’s random stabs of eccentric humor) and catches the eye of Yashida’s comely granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Soon they’re on the run from an assortment of villains with unclear motives as Mangold unfurls an elaborate plot involving Mariko’s crime-boss father (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his yakuza henchmen, a mysterious ninja army, and a slinky mutant named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova, from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), who kills with a poisoned kiss in a passe throwback to Batman’s nemesis Poison Ivy.
Shifting the action to Japan is an inspired move for a film that aims to be a standalone enterprise. Not only does it distance itself from the critically mauled X-Men Origins: Wolverine, dropping the “X-Men” from the title frees Mangold from many of the constraints of sequel-making and prevents the scattered focus that would accompany a multimutant world.
It’s chancy though, filling a summer blockbuster with predominantly non-American actors and even having some of them speak subtitled Japanese. But the Far East setting repays the production’s faith.
Mangold, with director of photography Ross Emery and production designer Francois Audouy, creates an atmosphere of rather lovely asceticism, rare for the genre. The cinematography is crisp and often beautiful, combining the latest digital technology with old-school lenses to achieve a classic look, as heavy-duty themes of vengeance and redemption, immortality and loss play out in rural ryokans and against neon-lit cityscapes. The postproduction conversion to 3D adds little.
As well as permitting a riff on the parallels between Jackman’s mutant warrior and a feudal-era ronin, a samurai without a master or a cause to fight for, the exotic locale lifts the Wolverine out of his comfort zone, forcing him to navigate a strange land with strict codes of honor and a strong sense of tradition and custom.
Best of all, Mangold uses the occasion to give a distinctly Japanese twist to the tried-and-true battle-atop-a-speeding-train — in this case, a bullet train — hurtling along at 300 miles per hour. It’s a bravura heart-in-mouth sequence, expertly staged, and there’s plenty more goring and slashing where that came from, as well as a spectacular Kurosawa-inspired scene in which Logan falls foul of several quivers full of arrows.
Each fight propels the narrative along — how’s that for novel? — although the PG-13 rating renders them weirdly bloodless and the climactic battle with the Silver Samurai is a giant letdown, which may even provoke sniggers.
Thirteen years after his mutant debut in Bryan Singer’s terrific X-Men, Jackman, also a producer here, owns the Wolverine character. The charismatic Aussie has added some martial arts moves to his character’s slice-and-dice repertoire, is buffer than ever and shows no sign of flagging. A post-credits sequence teasing next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, has Fox execs betting fans’ interest won’t diminish, either.
Opens: July 26 (Twentieth Century Fox)
Production companies: Twentieth Century Fox, Seed Productions, Marvel Entertainment, The Donners’ Company
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Hal Yamanouchi
Director: James Mangold
Screenwriters: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank
Producers: Lauren Schuler Donner, Hutch Parker,
Executive producers: Stan Lee, Joseph Caracciolo Jr.
Director of photography: Ross Emery
Production designer: Francois Audouy
Costume designer: Isis Mussenden
Music: Marco Beltrami
Editor: Michael McCusker
PG-13, 126 minutes
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