Spoilers below the jump.
Spoilers below the jump.
The biggest surprise of the movie comes right by the start, when we’re made aware that this is a film which follows on chronologically from X-Men 3. Rather than telling a story of Logan’s past, the movie is actually going to dare to follow on from the repercussions of that Brett Ratner travesty. As a result, Wolverine is joined in the movie by Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey, who spends all her time existing as part of his subconscious whilst the camera strains to look down her top. It’s a reasonable framing device for Wolverine’s character progression in the flick, even if the white room she’s in doesn’t appear to be particularly hot.
Jean’s prior death means Wolverine himself starts off the movie as a right old mardy-pants, living in the middle of the woods, making friends with bears and staring at (black and white?) photographs of the various X-Men he apparently misses. This even includes Halle Berry’s Storm, proving that the grieving process really does leave you with rose-tinted glasses. This sequence actually manages to fit a large chunk of Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s 1982 ‘Wolverine’ miniseries into the film very neatly as a result, however, and gives us a quick and satisfying redefinition of who the character is and how he lives.
Throughout, Claremont and Miller’s portrayal of Wolverine serves as the basis for the character in the movie.
I could’ve watched a whole movie of the opening sequence, which ends with Wolverine avenging his sadly murdered bear friend (the bear gets fridged very quickly, alas) by stabbing the guilty hunter through the hand with a poisoned arrow. If that doesn’t sum up Wolverine – a man who feels the need for honour even if he doesn’t go about achieving it honourably – then I don’t know what does.
The film moves away from this by bringing in the star of the film: Yukio, as played by Rila Fukushima. Fukushima steals every scene she’s in, and makes the interesting choice of underplaying her action scenes – The Wolverine is the first time since Iron Man that a hero has dispatched enemies whilst being completely distracted by something else.
She’s utterly mesmerizing in the film, which is good because once she brings Wolverine across to Japan? The cast grows a little less steady. Having said that this is set in Japan and features a load of ninjas, that doesn’t exactly mean that the film has given work to a load of Japanese actors. The casting department have gone all round Asia to assemble this cast, with Chinese and Korean actors all filling out Japanese roles in the movie.
I wouldn’t have expected Hollywood to differentiate between Chinese, Japanese and Korean people, but it does feel like a shame that a movie which is so clearly in love with Japan and Japanese culture couldn’t at least cast realistically.
Because boy, this is a movie which likes Japan, and Japanese culture. Everything from ronin to nabe gets a mention, and we get sequences set at a funeral, a love hotel, and on top of the bullet train! Ninjas show up, obviously, and everybody is very concerned with honour. People get kicked through paper walls, and every character knows at least a functioning level of martial arts training. Sadly there are no scenes where everybody suddenly reveals they have the ability to fly, or the bingo card would be complete.
With Wolverine now living in Japan, we get to see a supporting cast made up of great roles and rubbish ones. There’s Mariko, most prominently, played by Tao Okamoto, whom he acts as a fairly ropey bodyguard for during the second half of the film. A fantastic lead role and performance, she’s a character who sits at the heart of the film and gives everybody else more depth for it. Without Okamoto’s restrained, smart performance, half the rest of the cast would be all the more ridiculous and half-baked.
Because while her fiance is played with a wonderful sneer by Brian Tee, her ‘long-lost love’ is a bloke who fires arrows and dies TRYING TO FIGHT A GIANT ROBOT USING THOSE ARROWS. This character, played by a despairing Will Yun Lee, is rubbish throughout the movie, never really having a clear purpose or agenda at any point. He seems promising right at the start, and has a great free-running sequence as he chases people across a rooftop. But then he starts double crossing, and he starts making weird choices for no apparent reason, and becomes the biggest liability in the film.
In the cinema I was in, people cheered when he conked it.
The cast are generally very able, with none of the clunkers that started wandering into the franchise around the time of X-Men 3 – Ken Yamamura makes a particular impression as Yashida, who has to make a very sudden jump from likeable acquaintance to nominal lead villain of the film. He conveys a likeability which is seen reflected through Okamoto’s dignified and independent Mariko, and never once foreshadows his later turn to malevolence. It’s a really enjoyable performance, and speaks to the overall tone of the movie, also. Although it does sometimes become downcast, this is an X-Men film where the characters really get to have fun and enjoy themselves.
Wolverine Origins was a film where every character was filled with self loathing and hung around, waiting for somebody to fight or kill them. In The Wolverine, the characters are happy about being alive, and actively fight to protect themselves. Even though Mariko has the least fighting ability, she does at least try to fight off her attackers during the several times they kidnap her. And wow, does she get kidnapped a lot. If it weren’t for the fact she feels like an actual person, stuck in a superhero World, then this’d feel a whole lot more formulaic as a film. Although she is a damsel in distress, she also has agency and her own sense of purpose – and that helps carry the film through.
The finale is somewhat disappointing when it rolls round as – despite a terrific fight between Yukio and a somewhat menacing but out-of-place Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper which ends with a fairly brutal moment – we’re ultimately left with Wolverine fighting a big CGI robot we don’t care much about. The reveal that Yashida is in the suit is fairly obvious from the moment we see the suit, and the decision not to immediately reveal him (and therefore up the emotional stakes) leaves the final battle feeling dry, and listless. There’s some fun moments, like Wolverine getting his claws lopped off, but ultimately it takes what was a more human and personal film…. and suddenly throws an Iron Man into it.
The X-Men aren’t meant to be like the Avengers. They’re best when facing off very personal threats, rather than generic villains. That’s why the Sentinels work so well as aggressors, but an anonymous robot version of Silver Samurai doesn’t. The finale loses sight of that personal connection, and suffers for it.
Overall though, this is a remarkably consistent movie. It gives us a new setting and direction for Wolverine, effectively gives him a supporting cast I’d love to see return – especially Yukio – and brings some momentum back to a very stagnant character. Hugh Jackman is engaged and ready as always, but this time he gets a proper script to handle and… uh… sink his claws into. Sorry! He does due snarling diligence, but also handles lighter character moments and quiet confessionals without feeling like he’s doing pantomime (which is how I felt Wolverine Origins treated him – a pantomime character).
So I’d recommend The Wolverine, as a whole. I thought it was a strong film in general, escaping the epic smashing grimness of Man of Steel as deftly as it avoids the blockbuster bickering of The Avengers. It’s taken over a decade, but somebody finally realised that if you want to write a great Wolverine – YOU READ SOME RUDDY CHRIS CLAREMONT COMICS.