Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Wolverine (Movie Review)

I sat down to watch The Wolverine not expecting a great movie. The trailers I had seen featured action sequences obviously filmed in front of green screen, giving the impression that this movie didn't have the budget it needed to tell a truly great superhero story. (Okay, Wolverine/Logan is an anti-hero, but you know what I mean.) Still, I knew this movie was highly anticipated by many geeks, so I carved out the time and sat in the theater to see what would come of this second attempt at a Wolverine solo movie. I was surprised by what I got. In some ways good, and in some ways bad.

The Wolverine picks up at some point after the events of X-Men 3: The Last Stand. At the end of that movie (spoiler warning!!) Wolverine is forced to kill the woman he loves, Jean Grey, to prevent her from murdering countless humans and mutants.

At the start of "The Wolverine", Logan has cut himself off from past associations, vowing to never again hurt another person. He is plagued by nightmares and haunted by dreams in which he converses with Jean. The result is a continually renewed sense of guilt and loss for Logan.

An old friend from Japan (old, as in "World War 2") sends a messenger to bring Logan back to Tokyo so that he can see him one more time before he dies. Logan reluctantly agrees, only to find himself wrapped up in a war between the Japanese mafia and the family owners of a large corporation. A war that pushes Logan to his limits and brings him closer to death than he has ever come before.

Meanwhile, Logan must make the decision of whether or not to continue fighting for his life. The ghosts of his past pull him toward the resignation of death, but the possibility of a new love urges him on toward life. But as Jean Grey observes, everyone Logan loves dies. And he has been especially unfortunate when it comes to the women he has loved.

A great strength of the movie is the focus on character. After character elements were spread a bit thin in "Last Stand", this was a welcome change. I truly cared about Logan and his loss and empathized with him in ways I never have in his previous film appearances. The dream sequences with Jean Grey were pivotal to this aspect of the film and actually gave more dramatic weight to "The Last Stand" retroactively! The overall pacing of the movie, although it can still be called an "action flick", is slower and more character driven, swapping out some big action sequences for engaging character development.

One odd and rather significant aspect of the story seems to ignore the main premise of "The Last Stand". Logan is offered the opportunity to have his power of regeneration removed from him. This is meant to be the carrot dangled in front of him to bring him to Tokyo. But at the end of "The Last Stand", a mutant "cure" is readily available, which permanently removes all mutant traits. If Logan wanted to be cured, he could go to his local drug store. Or if I've misunderstood the ending of "Last Stand" and the cure is more rare, Logan certainly has the right connections to get it without going to Tokyo for an alternative with far less certainty.

Despite this apparent problem with the logic of the movie, Hugh Jackman creates such sympathy for his situation that it made me wonder if there is something about the situation I've simply misunderstood. This is consistent with what I think is a long-standing rule of storytelling. If you make people care about your characters, they'll forget about the details that don't work.

The visual effects were much better than I expected them to be. An almost convincing CGI bear is featured near the beginning of the movie and Wolverine's claws are once again a combination of costume prop and CGI (unlike the almost cartoonish CGI claws used throughout "X-Men Origins: Wolverine").

The action visually plays out less like a superhero flick and more like a standard action movie. There are little to no dramatic wide shots or slow motion sequences. This gives the movie a more grounded feel that some may enjoy. Additionally, a few action sequences are made more intense by the ways in which Logan is hurt. (And yes, for a fair chunk of this movie, Logan can actually be hurt!)

For my tastes, I like action sequences (especially those in the superhero genre) to have dramatic flare. Not necessarily in the form of visual effects. I don't need visual effects to enjoy action sequences. But I do like my action to be creatively and dramatically presented in the way it is shot. The Wolverine fails to scratch that itch for me. Additionally, although I value the focus on character, the film could have used a touch more action and a "bigger" second act.

The film also falls short when it comes to the female villain, The Viper, who is cast by an actress almost channeling Uma Thurman's performance of "Poison Ivy" in the blasphemous "Batman And Robin". The biggest problem for me was the poorly done, glaringly obvious ADR(Additional Dialogue Recording) for the character. When she opens her mouth, I can almost see the recording booth the actress is standing in during post-production. Still, in a movie with no other significant mutants (aside from Logan himself), The Viper is a useful reminder of the larger world of mutants that Wolverine inhabits.

The climax is intense and dramatic, especially when Logan is injured in a way that may bother some fans and will undoubtedly carry over into the next X-Men movie. I'll hold judgment until I see what they do with it then, but for now it was pretty jaw-dropping. A risk I think that may have been needed in order to truly make us feel that Logan was in peril.

The Wolverine has an interesting "purpose" theme running through Logan's story. He is enticed to go to Japan because it represents a chance for him to find purpose for himself, even if that purpose is only "an honorable death". Logan is compared to a Ronin, a Samurai without a master, who is therefore lacking purpose and direction.

This hits closer to a universal truth than the filmmakers probably realize. Our purpose is not to "live a good life" or have "an honorable death". We are a race of Ronins, who only find purpose when we submit to a Master. The God who created us and gives us purpose.

Despite the potential strength of this metaphor, viewers are less likely to contemplate their own sense of purpose after viewing this movie and are more likely to simply be invested in Logan rediscovering his.

The Wolverine is a well-made comic book action movie with real heart that fails to be fantastic, but settles for "very good". And X-Men fans should be sure to stick around for a bonus scene during the end credits that dramatically sets up the next X-Men movie! (X-Men: Days Of Future Past, filming now!)

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language

Quality: 8.0/10

Relevance: 6.0/10

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