'The Wolverine': Jackman claws his way to surprising success
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
During "The Wolverine," there are moments -- not a whole lot of them, but enough for a well-versed-in-genre movie enthusiast to notice -- when the movie seems like a contemporary variant of film noir that just happens to have a comic book superhero for a protagonist, rather than what it is, which is a comic book superhero movie. But the mere fact that it contains such touches represents something like a genuine triumph for director James Mangold, star Hugh Jackman and the other creative forces behind the movie. By concocting a relatively intimate narrative in which the adamantium-framed self-healing feral mutant can (reluctantly) do his slashing and snarling, they've created a viable summer blockbuster that feels genuinely fresher than most.
While the first movie in the "Iron Man" series flipped the script with a nearly Byzantine sense of awareness, "The Wolverine" goes full sincerely tormented with its iconoclastic lead character. As adepts know, this fella has been around for a loooong time -- long enough it's kind of surprising that he hasn't made the acquaintance, say, of some of Anne Rice's vampires -- so the opening of this Wolverine adventure places him in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp just across the bay from Nagasaki right before that city gets a visit from a U.S.-made A-bomb. Our Man of the Muttonchops saves a Japanese soldier from the blast. And decades later, in the now, a representative of that now-nearly ancient man, a kicky young Japanese woman who has a way with a blade herself (Yukio, played by Rila Fukushima), has tracked the shaggy Wolverine to a mountain cave in Alaska, to summon him the side of the man he saved so long ago.
The Wolverine she finds is not in great shape. A bit of a psychic, Yukio observes of her reluctant charge that "A man who has nightmares every night of his life is in pain." She is right, and the star of Wolverine/Logan's nightmares is former love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whose unpleasant fate was chronicled in prior X-Men movies. A combination Jiminy Cricket and La Belle Dame Sans Merci from the afterlife, Jean's a hard lady to forget. But the family, corporate and criminal intrigue Wolverine gets caught up in on his Japan jaunt certainly provides distraction and more. The man he once saved is now a mega-worthy industrialist dying of a wasting disease. He presumptuously offers to divest Wolverine of his tormented existence by taking away his immortality. It's an offer Wolverine has no trouble refusing, but then the old man dies, and plenty of hell breaks loose, instigated by the Yakuza trying to kidnap the gajillionaire's beautiful granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamato), nouveau-ninjas trying to protect the heiress, and even a secret mutant who's out for ... well, that's giving too much away. Wolverine takes it upon himself to protect the reticent Mariko, and an uber-frenetic bullet train action scene ensues. Not too long after, Wolverine falls for the woman, and who can blame him: Model-turned-actress Okamato, to judge by her look in this movie, has the most beautiful translucent skin of any being on earth, and I've dined with Tilda Swinton. Never mind that the liaison that ensues in the movie is pretty much the most age-inappropriate relationship EVER.
Director Mangold, who worked with Jackman before on the less successful fantastic rom-com "Kate & Leopold," peppers the action sequences and what's between them with knowing movie-movie touches. There are intimations here of the James Bond Japan episode "You Only Live Twice," and some other, less seemingly likely classics, including "The Naked Kiss" and Ozu's "Floating Weeds." Jackman's embodiment of his character is as intense as ever, which helps with viewer investment when the movie finally gives in and goes full blockbuster in its last quarter. And its coda reminds the viewer that something much, much bigger is coming from the Marvel moviemaking bloc. But in the meantime, Wolverine's Japan vacation stands as a surprising, off-the-beaten-path success.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.