The Wolverine is certainly better than it’s overly-named predecessor X-Men: Origins- Wolverine. This is, of course, damning with faint praise as Origins was a fairly terrible movie, only better than the truly awful X-Men 3 which, for all intents and purposes, seemed to have started to euthanize the franchise until Matthew Vaughn’s First Class managed to apply a defibrillator to the near-rotten corpse.
The main problem with the X-Men version of Karate Kid Part 2, is that it is absolutely mediocre except for one fun action sequence involving a bullet train that pushes it up a half-star for me. The set-up is intriguing enough and the actors are certainly putting in an effort. But there’s little visual payoff. The first major action sequence could have been carbon-copied from any Bourne movie, except with adimantium claws grafted on. I shouldn’t have a desire to imitate the guys from The Office screaming “Parkour!” when watching a $100 million dollar action film at this point, but guys doing unnecessary flips over buildings while a shaky cam manages to catch very little of the action will make me want to do just that.
Logan, played for the sixth time by the stalwart Hugh Jackman, travels to Japan. It’s a welcome change of scenery, in what is largely a compacted version of one of his classic story arcs. For me, Wolverine has always been better as a side character and, to risk the collective fanboy rage of the internet, has never worked for me as the flagship of the film franchise, even with Jackman’s charisma. He’s at his best when he’s a dumb, violent, midget scrapper. The guy who, when Joss Whedon was showing his internal monologue during a fight in the comics, only managed to think, “I really like beer.”
Still, what we’ve got is what we’ve got and it ain’t bad. It ain’t that good either. It is, as predicted by the trailers, entirely milquetoast. And as I can’t simply recommend it solely based on the strength of the out of left-field mid-credit sequence that I wasn’t expecting, it’s going to come down to just how much you enjoy watching what must be a constantly creatine-ingesting Jackman run around the Far East in a wife beater, saying, “Bub.” Even the storyline is pretty paint-by-numbers as it mostly revolves around him trying to protect Mariko Yashida (Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter of a Japanese business magnate and soldier he saved in the second world war, despite having his healing ability depowered back to around the level that it was in the comics when he was introduced. He is still healing better than a normal human being, but when he gets shot, he actually gets slowed down a bit instead of being the T-1000.
What’s absolutely frustrating is that Jackman’s chemistry with Okamoto is so much more palpable than what he shared with Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey, who’s attraction was certainly noted in the first two installments of the franchise, but who didn’t truly reciprocate until Brett Rattner showed up to ruin everything. Yet over and over again the film can’t help but rub our collective noses in the failure that was pushing Wolverine into the rightful spot of Cyclops in X-Men 3. Every time the romance angle begins to bear fruit, the film slows to a crawl as he has hallucinations of Jean haunt him.
The cast is almost all Japanese (which is also a nice change of pace) and also on hand is Rila Fukushima who seems to be the more off-putting Asian counterpart of Cristina Ricci in her role as Yukio. This works for her, however and assists her in making her part much more memorable than, say, Svetlana Khodchenkova’s “Viper,” who seems to be such a generic template femme fatale that even when she explains her character and her motivation I still felt like I didn’t know anything about her. I would actually enjoy seeing Yukio in the upcoming Days of Future Past, but I doubt that will happen considering how practically everyone from the first three films and First Class are already being sandwiched into the script.
I can give director James Mangold credit for the stuff that does work, including but not limited to the internal family battle for the Yashida family, an interesting opening involving World War II, a few funny bits involving Logan’s fish-out-of-water status and the mentioned train sequence, but so much of it comes across as limp that it’s hard not to imagine what would have happened if Darren Aronofsky had directed it as originally planned and brought his special blend of visual craziness to the tale.
(Three damns given out of five.)