Another take on The Wolverine: Piers Marchant reports

July 26, 2013

The Wolverine
Cast:Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Hal Yamanouchi, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto
Director:James Mangold
Rating: PG-13,for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language
Running time: 126 minutes

By Piers Marchant for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and blood, dirt & angels

The story goes that back in the early ’80s, legendary comic book writer Chris Claremont and artist Frank Miller (who would go on to eventually write and draw the immortal Dark Knight series for DC) were on a long road trip home from the San Diego Comic Convention, driving up the California coast when the conversation turned to Wolverine.

Introduced as nothing more than a side character, he had found his way to the new X-Men series that Claremont also wrote, and had quickly become one of the most popular characters in the Marvel universe. So much so, that there was an idea he should have his own mini-series, away from his X-compatriots.

The concept they came up with involved the idea that Wolverine was more than just a Tasmanian devil with adamantium claws — he was steeped in honor and codes, like a samurai, only his berserker rage prevented him from ever attaining the harmony and enlightenment of the noble Japanese warrior. They quickly spun a tale of love and loss and redemption set in Japan and it went on to become an instant classic in the comics world.

In James Mangold’s adaptation of that short series, we find Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), now going by his birth name, Logan, brooding up in the Alaskan Yukon. He’s living in a make-shift camp up in the mountains, haunted by nightmares and visions of his former beloved, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the fellow mutant whose powers had run amuck until he was forced to kill her in order to save the world around them. In his grief, he’s run away from everyone and everything he’s known before, growing his hair and beard out like something out of a labor camp (or in Jackman’s case, a buffed up Jean Valjean).

Running afoul of some locals at a bar, Logan is introduced to Yukio (Rila Fukushima), as she helps him out of a jam with her samurai blade. An emissary from Japan, Yukio convinces him to return with her to Tokyo, where his presence has been requested by Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), an aged, dying business tycoon whose life Wolverine saved back in WWII as the Nagasaki bomb dropped.

Yashida has the idea that if he can siphon off some of Wolverine’s mutant healing ability, he’ll be able to survive indefinitely and protect his precious granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), from the nefarious forces aligning against her, including that of her own father, Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada). Logan, however, is not interested in that kind of charity, which leaves the old man to his earthly demise, setting in motion a series of bewildering battles and half-buried plot points that, frankly, aren’t coherent enough to even bother trying to ascertain. Suffice it to say, there are extended fight scenes on city streets, on the roofs of bullet trains, and, eventually, at the top-most level of a grand palace up in the mountains.

In fact, so confused is the narrative by the end — with at least one major character suddenly switching allegiances, and a nefarious scheme involving a giant, adamantium robot samurai — even IMDB seemingly lists one of the main characters incorrectly. Under the circumstances, it’s an understandable mistake.

When in doubt, it seems Mangold and his screenwriters have just decided to make things as blurred and muddled as possible in order to help suspend your disbelief. As long as you don’t get hung up about gigantic plot inconsistencies and the film’s peculiar penchant for dream sequences involving a heavenly Jean Grey in a ghostly negligée, offering up sage bits of wisdom for Wolverine to absorb and summoning him to the after-life, you can have a decent amount of fun just counting the number of times the filmmakers resort to exhibiting Jackman’s astoundingly ripped naked shoulders and torso in lieu of actual character development — he’s surely the most buff song-and-dance man in existence.

Which isn’t to say Jackman doesn’t attempt to deliver a more in-depth portrayal. This is the sixth time he’s worn the claws, as it were, and he seems incapable of mailing in a performance. The problem is the last couple of films he’s appeared in (I discount the brief — but hilarious — cameo in X-Men: First Class), including the dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: The Last Stand have been nowhere close to his standard. This might be a small step up from those two shoddy constructions, but still light years behind Bryan Singer’s first two commanding X-Men films.

There are a smattering of heady action set-tos, I suppose, but they are all in such a bewildering jumble, it’s difficult to distinguish them terribly much, or determine why we should particularly care in the first place. The shame of it is the Claremont/Miller comic — while still filled with the kind of melodramatic hyperbole of the form at the time — suffers from no such confusion. An enemy is identified clearly and distinctly, and at no point are you forced to question Wolverine’s involvement in anything.

It also added a small but highly significant detail, utterly abandoned here: In the comic mini-series, Wolverine was not only already familiar with Japan, he had lived there long enough to learn the language and much of its cultural heritage. He was more Ronin than foreigner. Here, he’s a lumbering gaijun happy enough to go about his bloody business without understanding much of anything that’s going on around him. In this, he’s certainly not alone.

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