Written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank
Directed by James Mangold
It would seem that Hugh Jackman has come full circle. When he appeared as Wolverine in 2000’s X-Men, he wasn’t a big enough star to carry the film by himself; he needed a quality picture around him to bear the load of audience expectations. Now, in this weekend’s The Wolverine, Jackman has become such a star — and so attached to this role in particular — that he is able to pull the audience through the film’s rough spots and ultimately make it entertaining.
The film is very loosely adapted from the first Wolverine solo comic, a 1982 four-issue series written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller. The two stories share little beyond a Japanese setting and the names of certain supporting characters, but director James Mangold (Copland, 3:10 to Yuma) has clearly composed certain shots to resemble Miller’s panels, and both stories are shot through with the spirit of the samurai. Jackman’s Wolverine has been shattered by the events of X3: The Last Stand, only to be drawn back into civilization by a Japanese man whose life he once saved. Unfortunately, that man is immersed in a war between Yakuza, ninjas, and forces stranger than both.
Attempting to explain the story any further than that is folly, because the plot of this film is simply nonsense. The Claremont/Miller story was labyrinthine by itself, and the film has added on villains and intrigue to make it still more complicated. Just trying to keep track of who wants to kill whom and why is a challenge equal to any that Wolverine faces. It’s never entirely clear why The Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) is in the film at all, and it seems that she easily could have been written out of the script altogether with no loss to the audience.
However, screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank keep a very firm grasp on Wolverine’s character arc, so that no matter how difficult the villains are to decipher, it’s always clear what the hero’s internal challenge is. Jackman simply owns this role, in much the same way that Robert Downey Jr. owned Iron Man 3 earlier this summer, with a perfect sense of how angry or vulnerable he needs to be in every moment. Famke Janssen is also a welcome presence as the memory of Jean Grey; she anchors the emotional conflict inside Wolverine and never lets the audience forget what this film is about amidst the action-film antics.
The challenge with Wolverine films is that he’s an R-rated character who appeals to a PG-13 audience. In the film’s first action sequence first it seems that Mangold has dropped the ball on this contrast, as Wolverine dispatches a dozen foes with only the slightest implication of blood and ends the confrontation with a special-effects-heavy encounter atop a speeding bullet train. Later, though, the fight scenes become more visceral, with an emphasis on human stuntwork and martial-arts prowess. The essence of the Wolverine character, in the movies as well as the comics, is a guy who is willing and able to take almost any beating in the interest of doing the right thing. Even hamstrung by the PG-13 rating, Mangold is able to deliver on how physically rough a duty that is to have.
Jackman’s previous movie in this role, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was a painful mess, a tossed salad of story concepts and characters that was hastily assembled amidst a writer’s strike so that it could be thrown onto screens a year later. The Wolverine is a bit of a mess as well, especially while The Viper is on screen, but it is not hasty and it is not painful. With the help of solid work by Jackman, it goes down as easily and enjoyably as any film this summer, with a mid-credits stinger that sets up even more enjoyable things to come.