Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: The Wolverine!

Fox has had a funny way of handling their X-Men properties. The studio has coveted their film rights to these characters and have continued to churn out movies to prevent said rights from reverting back to Marvel, and yet they've frequently seemed reluctant to fully realise the characters they've paid for. And never was this clearer than in 2009's maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine which presented a softened, watered-down hero battling against cheap knock-off characters that barely resembled their comic book counterparts. It lacked substance - not uncommon with this genre - but, even worse than that, it lacked style. And it left most audiences with little faith or interest in the cinematic future of Wolverine.

However, one thing made me excited about the proposed sequel. Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan) was hired to direct and right these wrongs, presenting a far darker (and more faithful) vision. Alas, that all fell through (the most popular theory is that the studio got squeamish about his harder take on the material), leaving director James Mangold to pick up the pieces. And yet even Hugh Jackman himself has been promising that this new film, simply titled The Wolverine, would make up for missed opportunities. It would bring Wolverine back to his comic book roots, darker, grittier and going totally beserk.

Now, I'll start by saying that I don't think Jackman was trying to hoodwink us this time. I think there's a sincerity about The Wolverine where Hugh and the crew are genuinely trying their best to deliver all these things. Bulked up bigger than ever before (and near naked for most of the movie to prove it), Hugh narrows his eyes, grits his teeth, and gives everything he has to unleash. But does he still have what it takes? And are Mangold and the screenwriters up to the task?

I'll tell you what I thought... after the jump!

If you've seen the trailer you already have a good handle on the story. A direct sequel to the third X-Men (Last Stand), Logan is haunted by visions of his lost love, Jean Grey, and has given up his killer Wolverine identity to be a hairy, whiskey-chugging hobo in the woods. But he is soon sought out by death-predicting pop-punk mutant Yukio who convinces him to join her on a trip to Japan where an elderly businessman has a dying wish. This is Yashida, the same guy that Wolverine rescued many decades ago from the atomic blast in Nagasaki, and he wants to leech Wolvie's healing power to save himself and grant Logan a mortal death. Logan says no and all hell breaks loose. And ninjas are flipping out anywhere. It draws from the settings and characters of the famous Chris Claremont comics run (for example, Mariko, Wolverine's love interest is introduced) but the story goes in a different direction entirely.

Now I've heard people claim that there's too much going on in this plot - and there are certainly a lot of characters to keep track off - but I would argue that the ideas that are presented here are very simple. Wolverine is dealing with ideas of death and mortality - his inability to get over Jean, and thoughts of his own vulnerability - and these are stretched thin over the ponderous two hour running time. It's not a fast-moving film by any means, it has a strong start, kind of sags in the middle, and then gets silly and comic booky only towards the end. It also doesn't have much up its sleeve that you haven't seen in the trailers. This isn't like Man of Steel which has a billion money shots. It's a far more moderate, middle-of-the-road action film where many of the bigger moments have already been seen. Seeing this film is more about piecing it all together, and spending extended time getting to know the main players. And it does that part well, I think. I'm surprised by how engaged I was with some of the slower material between Wolverine and Mariko.

And honestly it's a much better film than I was expecting. Or perhaps I should say a far more entertaining film than I expected. It grabbed me right from the beginning and, while it does lag occasionally, I was engaged throughout. But would I be in a hurry to see it again?

The best analogy I can come up with to describe my feeling while watching The Wolverine, is that the X-Men films are becoming like the Bond films. In viewing experience more than tone. And what I mean by that is: there are a lot of them, they all have good parts but also slow and silly parts, and they tend to just slosh together in your mind. Give it a few years and everyone but the diehards will be saying, "Wait... which one is this one? Is this the one with the samurai in it? Or the one with the guy with the stitched up mouth? Oh! I like this bit! Oh I hate this bit!" And, much like Bond, if you're not already a fan then the films will probably leave you cold. There's nothing in The Wolverine that would convert a casual viewer who wasn't already invested in the material. If you've never seen an X-Men film then I certainly wouldn't recommend this new one as your first. Not only would you be bored but you'd be wondering what all the fuss was about.

And, much like what Marvel is doing with their Avengers films, Fox is now making this episodic. Stay for the credits because there's a very important (and awesome) tease of the next film, Days of Future Past. Which makes these films really like watching a huge budget television series. It makes it less important for each individual film to even need to be complete, or a great success. Didn't particularly care for this one? That's okay, because here's a taste of next year's episode! It's actually quite effective, and even though The Wolverine didn't floor me, I was still left feeling excited about the next one. I think it's the perfect model for comic book movies and if the X-Men rights aren't returning to Marvel then I hope that Fox at least can get a handle on it.

Now let's go back to Hugh Jackman. Is he really the Wolverine? Recently I've had my doubts. In fact, considering that he's under-delivered on promises in the past, I've wondered if he actually understands the character enough to truly inhabit him. And I like Hugh Jackman a lot - he's such a strong and engaging presence on screen - but, despite the fact that he's doing his darnedest to bring it in this one, I'm still not 100% convinced he's the right guy to do it.

Hugh Jackman is just too nice. And it worked in those early films because audiences (especially American audiences) really didn't know anything about him, but now everyone knows him as the nicest, most gracious, humble, singing, dancing Australian gentleman and when he murders someone on screen, or snarls at someone to, "fuck off", I'm just not buying it. And this film is far more gruesome and violent than you may think. The worse stuff happens off camera but it's still a bloody affair and Wolverine racks up a surprisingly massive kill count. But even then it's all make believe because I feel far too safe and comfortable with Hugh. I know he's not really that guy, no matter how hard he tries to be. You can still see that nice guy in his eyes. In Pacific Rim I complained that the American playing the Australian lacked the essence of that character (not to mention the accent) and I would argue here that Hugh, as an Australian, lacks the essence of the Wolverine. He just doesn't have that arrogance or animal instinct about him. That said, there are a handful of moments where he achieves that genuinely badass berserker rage he keeps promising, but his not able to sustain that wildness throughout it's running time. I think that's always an issue when Logan is a film's central character and I think he works far, far better when metered out and flanked by other X-Men, so I'll give him another shot in the next one before I give up on him entirely.

Speaking of which, I do miss the X-Men. Even though Origins was a terrible movie, and gave us cut-price versions of beloved characters, we still got a hint of Gambit, Deadpool, Emma Frost and the Blob. The Wolverine has nothing like that to offer us, with perhaps the exception of the Silver Samurai whose treatment will no doubt frustrate some viewers. Once again I'm amazed that Fox has spent money to gain the rights of such a rich stable of characters and yet is reluctant to use them. Director Mangold is lucky, however, that what he does have he uses well, and I particularly enjoyed the two Japanese female leads. Considering that this is the first feature film for both Yukio and Mariko, I felt that both actresses acquitted themselves very well - they're the core of the film and help give it some much needed depth. Because, let's be honest, as seriously as The Wolverine attempt to take itself at times, it really is entertaining action fluff, much like the Bond films of yore that I referenced before.

Short version, if you've seen the other X-Men films then I definitely recommended that you absorb this additional chapter. It's superior to Origins, is entertaining enough for what it is, and has a handful of memorable moments. Think of it as a bridge to tide you over until next year's far more anticipated Days of Future Past.

1 comment:

  1. Saw this movie on Thursday and quite enjoyed it! I'm a big Wolverine fan from back in the day, and so had a lot of comic book context to place it in (knowing all about Mariko, already being invested in the characters and their relationships) so I didn't have trouble with the plot...I can see how someone coming in with no knowledge would be a little lost, though...