Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Wolverine (2013)

While the original "X-Men" trilogy was not that great and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" was pretty bad, Marvel did get it right with "X-Men: First Class," which I consider the best film they've produced. So in that regard any "X-Men" movie, while capable of greatness, isn't something that's guaranteed to be amazing. Granted I'm not a big fan of Marvel films in general, so my opinion is somewhat suspect, but that's just me. In any case, I wasn't holding my breath when it came to "The Wolverine." It's not that I thought it looked bad, in fact I thought the trailer was pretty promising, but I didn't really feel like paying movie theater prices to see it.

To my pleasant surprise, however, "The Wolverine" ended up being a film that I greatly enjoyed. In fact I had such a good time with it that I'd put it up there with "X-Men: First Class," although the later is the ultimately more satisfying film. It's a very different "X-Men" movie than we're used to, stripped down to the bare essences and free of the clutter of outlandish super-powers and revolving door of half-baked, poorly-defined characters dragging the plot through the mud as we slog through the cameos. That was always one of my biggest issues with those movies: It always seemed like there were about two dozen main characters, barely any of whom had enough screen time to be more than a walking name tag saying "Hi, My Name is Rogue."

Instead of having a massive cast who all seemed haphazardly crammed in strictly for fan-service reasons, "The Wolverine" keeps the story simple and about one (1) guy's journey. After the events of "X-Men: The Last Stand," Logan (Hugh Jackman) is living out in the wilderness, having nightmares every night about having killed his love interest Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and essentially being a miserable bastard who has had quite enough of living. When Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a powerful businessman whom Logan had saved from the A-bomb dropped on Nagasaki, offers him a way out of his misery by taking away his immortality, Logan finds himself tempted by the idea and goes to Japan.

Of course things go kind of sour pretty quickly, Yashida dies, a power grab ensues, his funeral turns into a slaughterhouse, and Logan finds himself on the run, protecting Yashida's daughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from the Yakuza and a dangerous mutant named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) as they make their way across Japan, trying to solve the mystery of what exactly is going on here. All this is going on while Logan's healing ability is strangely not working very well, causing him to actually be hurt by such trivial things as being shot and stabbed. Eventually he makes his way to one of Yashida's fortresses out in the middle of nowhere to save Mariko and put an end to the shenanigans afoot. Oh, and there may or may not be a fight with a giant samurai made from ademantium.


It's a very simple story that, not surprising given the plot, is not dissimilar to a samurai flick that you may have seen Toshiro Mifune in. Yashida even calls Logan a "Ronin" at one point, and there's plenty of imagery that makes it clear that's exactly what they were going for here. It almost reminded me of a live-action anime given the style and setting, which is very cool and off kilter enough to make "The Wolverine" really stand out among the rest of the Marvel franchise.

In fact this film rarely even feels like a Marvel movie, simply on the basis of it being too good. Yeah, you heard me fanboys, I said it. In terms of it being an uncluttered story with solid character arcs, well laid out motivations, believable and non-irritating characters and consistent and satisfying themes, this is better than any of the rest of the Marvel films with the exception of "X-Men: First Class." But in some ways I like "The Wolverine" better.

One of the main reasons it feels different is because for most of the movie, Logan is hurting pretty bad. His healing powers aren't working, so he's vulnerable. His brash actions that typically involve him eschewing any kind of caution now have dire consequences, to the point where he could actually die. The problem with a lot of the X-Men is that they are utterly defined by their powers, and while that is still somewhat true with Logan, in this film he has to become more than just a man who can't die, because that's not who he is anymore. I think it's the first time any X-Men movie has dealt with characterization to that extent, and it's a refreshing change.

As refreshing as the gentle breeze on top of a train going 300 mph. Aaaah. Soothing.

On a number of occasions it also had me doing one of my favorite things, which is sitting back in awe as I say to myself, "Well, I've never seen that before." Two scenes in particular stand out, one being an absolutely stunning action sequence on top of a bullet train which puts the end of the first "Mission: Impossible" to shame, and the other one being a sequence where Logan performs open-heart surgery on himself. I was invested for the entire film, but those parts were especially fantastic and blew me away.

And of course Hugh Jackman IS Wolverine at this point, having completely become the character and the eternal badass that he is. The fact that he's great in it is a given, but it was nice to see them make his hair look a little less ridiculous while still giving the hint of his classic but absurd haircut. It was also cool seeing Will Yun Lee again, and I also always enjoy seeing Hiroyuki Sanada show up in anything, and he gets to play both a jerk and swing a sword here, both being things he is exceedingly good at, so that was cool. And newcomers Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima were a delight, and I hope to see more of them in the future because they're both quite good. The only issue I had was Svetlana Khodchenkova, and that's not because she was bad, but because she's got this mole of preposterous size on her face that is intensely distracting.

"Hey, you've got something on your face. Right there, to the right. You need to take care of that. Seriously, it's like someone glued a Coco-Puff to the side of your mouth. It's freaking me out."

It's not surprising given that the director, James Mangold, is very very good, but "The Wolverine" exceeded pretty much every expectation that I had. I'm not sure if it'll make my Top 10 of 2013, but if it doesn't it'll probably make an honorable mention at the very least. If they keep cranking them out like this, the X-Men films might start showing the other Marvel films up. Not in terms of box-office, I'm sure, but since when do box-office numbers count for quality? Just have Joss Whedon write a bunch of jerks snarking at each other for two hours before actually doing something productive and acting like superheroes. That sounds way better than something with actual characterization and mature themes.

Check out this awesome trailer for "The Wolverine."

THE BOTTOM LINE - "The Wolverine" is way better than a sequel to "X-Men: The Last Stand" has any right to be. It's stylish, it's action-packed, Hugh Jackman is fantastic, and the storyline has the most introspective and deep characterization we've ever gotten in a Marvel film, mostly due to the fact that it's about just Logan as opposed to a cast of dozens, so it gets a chance to actually flesh him out as a character. One of the best Marvel films ever, second only to maybe "X-Men: First Class."

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