Hugh Jackman as Wolverine
Tao Okamoto as Mariko Yashida
Rila Fukushima as Yukio
Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper
Hiroyuki Sanada as Shingen Yashida
Will Yun Lee as Harada
Brian Tee as Noburo Mori
Hal Yamanouchi as Yashida
Ken Yamamura as Young Yashida
Famke Janssen as Jean Grey
What comes next? It’s the question every storyteller dreads, faced with the blank page or canvas, trying to figure out what should happen to their characters next. How to develop them, what to have happen to them, and why? If you think about it, it’s the question we’re all trying to answer for ourselves. It’s certainly the question Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and the filmmakers trying to figure out what to do with him, are wrestling with.
His answer, at the start of “The Wolverine,” is to retreat to the Canadian wilderness, living like an animal on the side of a mountain, marking his territory, beating up rowdy hunters and having guilt-ridden dreams about having had to kill Jean Grey (Famke Janssen).
Jackman’s Wolverine is most definitely a known quantity at this point, as he steps into the character’s muttonchops and claws for the sixth time in a dozen years. But the quiet, introverted start to his newest adventure is a hint that director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) and his writers are going to at least flirt with a new approach to him, even if they don’t dive right in. While much of the lore of the character, not to mention screen time of his last film adventures, has been devoted to figuring out where he came from, “The Wolverine” sees the mystery man starting to ask himself harder questions about where he’s going, what sort of man does he want to be.
The answer to which seems to be in his past. Many years before while being held as a prisoner of war in Japan, Wolverine was front and center for the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki during which he saved the life of an honorable young soldier named Yashida who would rather live than die. Years later, and now a titan of industry in Japan, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) is a dying old man with a singular offer for Logan: an end to the existential agony of being able to survive everything.
Wolverine’s Japanese adventure has long been considered one of his best; a personal story with personal stakes that is ultimately about the man not stopping would-be world conquerors or destroyers. Screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank (and an uncredited Christopher McQuarrie) have stuck with that, crafting a melancholy story for Mangold and Jackman to bring to life, often to solid effect.
It’s also the most brutal of the Wolverine film outings to-date. Jackman hacks and slashes his way through waves of Yakuza thugs, ninja assassins and venom-spitting scientists (Svetlana Khodchenkova) as his visit to a dying old man thrusts him into the midst of one of the most dysfunctional families in the world with Yashida’s son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) vying for control of the family business with his own daughter, the beautiful but lonely Mariko (Tao Okamoto). When the Yakuza try to kidnap Mariko, Wolverine must turn his back on his vow to stop killing and take her on the run to safety. A run made all the more difficult by the fact that his incredible healing ability has begun to fail him.
If it’s typical of comics to make their heroes invincible, it’s typical of the film versions to make them as vulnerable as possible, with plans that don’t succeed and enemies they’re not prepared for. That works, when done well, and it certainly works for Wolverine who risks being the iconic invincible hero if not done right.
It’s too bad then that Jackman doesn’t do more with it, or with his inner turmoil. The movie on whole is actually understated in its expression of emotion, but less in a mannered way and more in a wooden one. That’s not a bad thing considering how over the top superhero films can get, but knowing how good Jackman can be and how personally focused “The Wolverine’s” story is, it’s flatter than it should be. Until he gets mad, anyway, then all is right with the world.
In between we do at least get some fireworks from Shingen and from Rila Fukushima as Yukio, a precognitive bodyguard who steals most scenes she is in, including the fight scenes as she throws herself bodily around rooms.
Khodchenkova also makes a lot out of very little as most of her character is designed around slinking in skintight outfits and breathing on people. In fact the villains as a whole are ill-defined, partly as a reaction to the focus so much of the story has on Wolverine himself, and partly as a necessity to leave their plans and purposes vague so as not to give away the third act. There are also a lot of divided loyalties causing you to question who the real villain is, but at the cost of explaining anyone’s motives, or even who is doing what, for quite some time.
In fact, much of the execution is like that, with excellent production design and cinematography marred by a pointless 3D conversion and listless score, and action beats which tend to be extremely uneven. The extended fight against the Yakuza in the first half is extremely well done; grafting story and character into violence and adrenaline, but most of the best beats are the smaller ones, like Wolverine’s interrogation of Mariko’s fiancé or accosting a group of hunters during his first encounter with Yukio. It’s also extremely front-loaded on the action side, with longer sequences of Logan and Mariko bonding and his attempts to reconcile his past and his future before a certain giant Silver Samurai finally appears on the scene.
For all the up and down, “The Wolverine” is definitely more up than down more of the time, thanks in large part to its willingness to focus on the man and not the action. It still doesn’t feel like the definitive adventure for the character, but there’s potential for the character still.
Potential it looks like we’ll see very shortly, so stay tuned to a post-credits stinger for a nifty prologue for the next “X-Men” film.