Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Wolverine - Fox Hopes Everyone Forgot Origins.

Two posts in one day?

Someone go thaw Beelzebub out, cause I have no explanation.

...OK, so there is an explanation, let me enjoy a little self-deprecation.

Anyway, as promised, this is one of two other recent releases gotten to seeing/reviewing.  I have to admit, I was a little surprised here.

When I had first heard they were doing another Wolverine film on paper, I had...reservations.  Sure, Jackman is a good fit for the role, but after X3: The Last Stand, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (which I finally decided to knuckle under and watch for this review, more on that in a bit) this was gonna be a VERY hard sell.  First Class was a step in the right direction, but this was going to be what determined whether that was a fluke or not.  Then teaser trailers started to come out, and I had to admit, I was feeling a bit more positive about this one.  For one, it felt like it was actually trying to stick to just its title character and generally avoid Fox's unfortunate habit of "Look how many Marvel characters we snuck into this movie!"

As part of a promotion, Fox actually hid 37 Marvel characters throughout this scene.  Find them all and send the info in on a post card, and Marvel will ask you to testify in the resulting lawsuit on which characters Fox didn't have the approval to use.

With some generally positive buzz, I finally got to checking out the movie at an early screening last Thursday.  The result, while not glowing, did give me some hopes for where things are headed.

For starters, like I said in the title, this film seems to be completely disregarding the backstory mess that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Thank whatever cosmic power you subscribe to for that one, too.  Like I said, this review marked the first time I bothered to watch that film, and that was just...bad.  To its credit, I gained more respect for The Wolverine as a result, but mostly from realizing it did many of the things Origins should have been doing but couldn't be bothered with.  So any reference to that is all but completely wiped out (complete with the fact this movie's backstory shifts Logan's WWII tour of duty. Where XMO:W had him involved at D-Day, this film instead jumps us to seeing him as a POW at Nagasaki.  Now, granted, they almost could reconcile both together...but it'd be one Hell of a stretch.)  Surprisingly, however, this film still decides to acknowledge the damage done by Brett Ratner's equally disliked The Last Stand.  Of course, half the surprise here is in how it handles it, and this is something I actually have to give the film some points for.


Traditionally, when a film has a bad sequel, the predecessors tend to follow one of three rules of thumb about it - you either pretend it never happened, you only acknowledge it when you're absolutely forced to, or you acknowledge it in a way that allows you to take potshots at the film as though to say to the audience "Yeah, we admit it.  It sucked."  In this case, however, they actually manage to take those events and use them to strengthen their own movie.  For starters, they set this some time after the film's conclusion, with Logan drifting away from the X-Men and sinking into a bit of a tailspin (OK, this could be read as KIND of a mix of points 1 and 2.)  Part of this tailspin is furthered along by the fact he's been haunted by dreams of Jean (Famke Janssen in a brief recurring role,) whose death he still blames himself for.  Considering this becomes a major part of what drives Logan in this movie, it seems the writers decided to make the most of the mess of The Last Stand and, in true 'If life gives you lemons' fashion, managed to make the basis for a halfway decent character arc out of it.  Now, this isn't to say The Last Stand is excused for its faults.  That's a mess for another time, but I do have to give writers Christopher McQuarrie, Scott Frank, and Mark Bomback some credit for being able to spin that into some better writing this time around.
and for the record - a better use of CG-rendered decrepitude than Prometheus

In further distancing from the X-Men setting, this movie transplants Logan to Japan, in a modified adaptation of the Frank Miller/Chris Claremont arc of comics from the 80s, that still remains one of the more popular arcs for Wolverine.  After wandering the wilderness, he's called to Japan by an aged and dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi,) the man he once saved years ago at Nagasaki.  He wishes to offer Logan the one thing no one else can - a chance to end his cursed immortality and find peace.  Logan refuses the offer, not born out of ego, but the belief that no one would want what he's had to live through.  Shortly after doing so, Yashida dies.  Within the day, Logan finds himself caught up in a crime war that has erupted from his death, and the de facto guardian of Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto.)  On top of this, something has caused his healing powers to weaken.

This last part is one of the things that really helps sell the movie's plot.  The story itself is an interesting little mystery on its own (and thankfully, one that avoids a LOT of the cliches blockbusters have fallen into lately), but the meat of this film is in its focus on its title character.  As someone whose healing powers usually render him impossible to kill, Logan's borderline immortality has always been a blessing and a curse for the character, both within the universe, and in regards to how to write him.  This film explores both aspects of that (something I was genuinely surprised Origins never touched on, despite exploring just how long he's been alive for) and really allows us to see Logan in states of weakness, first psychological, then physical. From there, we then see him have to rebuild himself in both senses over the course of the film.  With this daunting task on his plate, Jackman gives arguably one of the best performances he's had with the character to date.  For someone who has generally been played as gruff but with a protective streak, it was interesting to see Jackman change gears with the role, offering a man for whom even living had become tiring, but who still doesn't have it in him to simply lie down and die.  As he slowly pulls himself back together from the trainwreck he starts the movie as, Jackman really shows why he's held the part for as long as he has and become so iconic with the claws.  It's a change of gears that he really manages to make work.

Pictured: One of the only frames from Stan Lee's The Aristocrats that can still be legally shown on the internet.
Of course, one of the drawbacks of having this sharp a focus on just one character is that it sometimes costs other characters.  While there are some other interesting characters in this film (most notably in the film's other power player, Rila Fukushima as the assassin Yukio, who develops a great dynamic with Logan) there are some who really don't amount to as much as it feels like they should.  The characters who suffer hardest here being the film's antagonists - in particular, the much advertised mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a character who the film tries to build up as an interesting threat, but outside of some interesting powers, there's just not a whole lot to her.  Now, I'll acknowledge this it isn't like the X-Men franchise hasn't had that problem before (while I liked the first movie, I will also admit that any villain who isn't Magneto doesn't really have much to them to speak of for character,) but that doesn't make it any less of a problem here.  To the cast's credit, many of them do still make the most of what sketched out character they have, though it's somewhat shaky at points.  Okamoto, for example, manages to do well at some points of the movie, but at others seems a bit unclear of what's supposed to be happening with her character as well.  About the only other grievance I can give this film on that front is in the case of Will Yun Lee's character, Harada.  When he's first introduced, he has potential to be an interesting character, but ultimately his role doesn't wind up amounting to very much beyond the last act, where his actions feel somewhat lacking in impact thanks to the fact we don't really know him terribly well.  All in all, it's a solid cast that is mainly hampered by the fact the roles they have leave them with limited options.

This may be one of the few times I've seen someone described as looking like anime where I can say I'd can actually see it.

While I'm speaking on the behalf of the cast, I do have to take a moment to commend director James Mangold on the fact this movie REALLY doesn't rely too heavily on the idea of bankable star power.  At least, not for American filmgoers.  Outside of Jackman, probably the most recognizable name in the main cast was probably Hiroyuki Sanada (from the original Ringu and Danny Boyle's Sunshine) as Mariko's father, Shingen.  Otherwise, Mangold largely cast beyond the 'traditional' pool for Asian actors in the US, and in doing so, got a cast that stands well on their own merits, rather than simply going for names that would fill theater seats.

The one other thing I have to praise Mangold for here, and one of the big draws of the fact this is a summer film, is, of course, the action scenes.  I have to say, as the various X-Men/X-Men related films have gone in terms of action, this is probably some of the most creative sequences the franchise has had in a while.  Between a frenetic fight on the roof of a Japanese bullet train, and Logan's one-man assault in a village full of ninjas (a scene that's been featured prominently in advertisements,) the film keeps its action fresh without going back to the same tricks too often, and really taking advantage of the locations to offer more options in terms of how to let the fights play out.

"Let's see those fondlers reach me up here!"

So, all in all, I have to admit this surpassed my expectations. It's got some shortcomings, as a drawback of one of the film's strengths, strangely enough, but nothing strong enough to completely harm the movie.  Even with those flaws, it's still on the stronger end of the summer's blockbuster offerings, and is reassuring as a sign of the franchise finally getting itself back on track (speaking of, be sure to stay during the credits - they include an extra scene to set the stage for the next movie.) For all my reservations over the initial talk of the next film, I must admit, this actually has me feeling optimistic for where things could go again.  For a feeling I haven't had for this franchise since 2006, it's a welcome feeling.

One down, one to go.  As promised, the next one will be ready within the next day or so.

Keep an eye out till then!

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