We’re deep into the summer movie season and it’s becoming clear that blockbuster fatigue is setting in. “The Lone Ranger” has tanked, “Pacific Rim” has underperformed and “R.I.P.D.” … oh dear. Stand clear of that crater, kids. It might be radioactive.
With the relatively low-tech/ low-budget likes of “The Conjuring” and — ugh — “Grown Ups 2” eating the big boys’ lunch, are audiences signaling they’re finally fed up with CGI-packed orgies of mass mayhem? Maybe. Can anyone reverse the tide and stop summer’s slide toward big-movie ennui? How about “The Wolverine”?
Well, “The Wolverine” just might be the best comic book-based superhero epic since Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Sure, it has computer-generated images galore, starting with an atomic bomb blast in its opening sequence and culminating with an over-the-top battle royal — between the hero and two digitally enhanced baddies — that busts up the scenery real good. Set and shot on location in Japan, it has ninjas and yakuzas galore along with Marvel’s iconic Silver Samurai.
But it’s Hugh Jackman, ripped and raging, who centers the picture and compels our interest in the personality and personal struggles of Logan, aka the Wolverine, the man with the slashing, retractable adamantium claws.
The picture, whose script is credited to Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, benefits greatly from the tightness of its focus. Unlike the earlier X-Men movies, Logan is not part of an ensemble of mutant superheroes this time around. The spotlight is solely on him, which allows director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) to delve deeply into his personality with no detours or distractions.
Logan is anguished and conflicted, the most agonized character in the Marvel movie universe. In a sense, he’s a figure in the Batman mold. Where Bruce Wayne is forever haunted by the deaths of his parents and angered by the injustices of the world that their murders symbolized, Logan is haunted by his immortality. In fact, he’s literally haunted, by the ghost of his lover and fellow mutant Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) who appears to him at intervals in the movie, voicing reminders that “everyone you love, dies.” Those he loves he outlives, or in her case, has killed.
Immortality and its accompanying invulnerability are burdens he grudgingly bears. So when a dying and immensely powerful Japanese industrialist Shingen Yashida (Hiroyuki Sanada) — whose life Logan long ago saved from the Nagasaki A-bomb blast — says he can “cure” him of his immortality and allow him to live, and die, as an ordinary man, he’s torn and tempted.
The screenwriters and Mangold have mixed and altered relationships among well-known characters from the comics in creative ways. Best of all, they surrounded Logan with strong female characters who aren’t awed by his feral nature. Particularly noteworthy is Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a streetwise warrior whose bright red manga-hued hair is one of the movie’s most obvious nods to its comic book roots. She has a sly sense of humor she uses to puncture Logan’s seriousness. Strong too is Shingen’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) who is besieged by gangsters and killers throughout, and is an effective martial artist as well. She provides the love interest.
The picture is terrific to look at and its set-piece fights, including one atop a speeding bullet train, are truly spectacular. So don’t give up on superhero cinema just yet. “The Wolverine” is a keeper.
* * * *
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Tao Okamoto, Hiroyuki Sanada, Famke Janssen
Director: James Mangold
Running time: 2:06
Rated: PG-13; sequences of intense sci-fi action, violence, sexuality, language