In his sixth outing as the comic-book Wolverine, Hugh Jackman faces danger and martial-arts action in Japan.
Let’s start with the good news.
The Marvel crew continues to recruit solid filmmakers to shape their comic-book properties. It’s not always a winning formula (remember Ang Lee’s “Hulk”? Wish you didn’t?), but it’s a courageous one.
For “The Wolverine,” they hired James Mangold, whose back catalog boasts rich, character-heavy riffs on police thrillers (“Copland”), music bios (“Walk the Line”) and Westerns (“3:10 to Yuma”). They sent Hugh Jackman’s glowering, steel-taloned Logan/ Wolverine to Japan, with its neon-dazzling urban nightscapes and lavish historic temples. They give the story time to breathe, favoring menace, tension and, surprisingly, romance, over cartoonishly violent disorder until the final reel.
What’s not to like? Sadly, lots.
The film is a misconceived misfire, over-solemn for its first two acts and overstuffed with BLAM! POW! TEDIUM! at the climax. Ninety minutes in, it stops trusting the audience and becomes a movie that seems not to be made for fanboys, but by them.
Ignoring its disastrous 2009 predecessor, “Origins: Wolverine,” the new film operates as a sequel to 2006’s “X Men: The Last Stand,” which climaxed with Wolverine killing Jean Grey, his increasingly unstable and dangerous mutant love. Nursing his grief in the Canadian North Woods, he emerges from his hermit cave to wreak revenge on the hunting party that mortally wounded Logan’s pet grizzly.
During this sojourn, he’s shanghaied by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a martial-arts whiz with a stunning, heart-shaped face and cherry-red hair. She ferries Logan to Tokyo so her boss, a dying technology mogul, can repay an old debt. Once there, Logan faces the tycoon’s scheming heirs, political corruption, Yakuza, ninjas and his own inner demons.
For a superhero, the stakes are surprisingly personal. Logan’s ongoing identity crisis is connected to his physical invulnerability and seeming immortality. Having outlived everyone he has ever loved, he’s plagued by gauzy apparitions of Jean asking him to join her. Amid the story’s repeated references to Japan’s suicide culture, the aged industrialist offers Logan the gift of “an ordinary death.” The story’s only other mutant, poison-lipped Viper (vampish, hot-eyed Svetlana Khodchenkova), takes him halfway there, sapping the hero’s powers to near-human fragility. When sinister forces threaten the billionaire’s beautiful granddaughter, the newly vulnerable Logan takes her into hiding.
Jackman is utterly at home in a role he’s playing for the sixth time, buffed up to Olympian proportions, and persuasive in the action scenes. The fight sequences are closer in spirit to Bond or Bourne set pieces, with a hand-to-hand knockout atop a speeding bullet train. There’s even a nod to Kurosawa in the ninja archer scene that turns Logan into a staggering, raging pincushion of arrows. But there’s nothing he can do to resolve the story’s confounding plot twists, ghostly visions, Chopsticks 101 cultural superficiality and “Scooby Doo”-quality reveal of the plot’s true villain.
“The Wolverine” loses ambition as it proceeds, returning to its two-dimensional roots in the finale, a generic computer-generated smash-o-rama that will go in no one’s scrapbook of favorite superhero sequences. It’s just good enough to make you regret that it isn’t a lot better.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186