'The Wolverine' helps 'X-Men' franchise get back on track

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    Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper, left, and Hugh Jackman in a scene from ‘The Wolverine.’

  • Editor's Note: A correction in a main character's name has been made. Yashida is the terminal character in the movie, and Mariko is Yashida's granddaughter.

    Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper, left, and Hugh Jackman in a scene from ‘The Wolverine.’
    Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper, left, and Hugh Jackman in a scene from ‘The Wolverine.’

    Apparently audiences aren’t the only ones still plagued by Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Our favorite indestructible mutant, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), is suffering nightmares from killing XMen hero-turned villain Jean Grey at the end of the 2006 film to save the planet from her run-amok mutant powers.

    Lost in grief and guilt over the death of his great love, the ex-XMen now lives like an animal in the woods, and wants nothing more but to die and reunite with Jean (Famke Janssen), who haunts his dreams and begs him to join her on the other side. But his super-human healing powers prevent him from dying, thus the symbolism of a mortally wounded grizzly bear Wolverine permanently relieves from its pain as a metaphor for his own suffering.

    Then a mysterious Japanese woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) appears to inform him that her dying elderly grandfather, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), has the answer to his plight. The two men have a history. While an American POW in Japan during World War II, Wolverine saved Yashida, a Japanese soldier, from incineration by one of the nuclear bombs the United States dropped on the country to end the war. Wolverine figures he's simply saying his farewells, but once at the dying man's bedside he learns there's more to his visit: The terminal Yashida covets the mutant's healing powers as a means to his own immortality. As a wealthy businessman, he has the means to make the transfer possible. But Wolverine declines to give up his eternal health and Yashida dies.

    The Wolverine

    Directed by James Mangold.

    Written by Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, and Christopher McQuarrie.

    A 20th Century Fox release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, and Mall Cinema.

    Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language.

    Running time: 122 minutes.

    Critic’s Rating ★★★½

    Wolverine. Hugh Jackman

    Yukio. Rila Fukushima

    Harada. Will Yun Lee

    Jean Grey. Famke Janssen

    Mariko. Tao Okamoto

    ★★★★★ Outstanding; ★★★★ Very

    Good; ★★★ Good; ★★ Fair; ★ Poor


    That's just the beginning of the clawed hero's adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun, as he must protect Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who will inherit the family fortune and business, from her jealous father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), her power-hungry fiancé, a Japanese mob, and a poisonous mutant named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

    The Wolverine is an excuse to relocate the titular mutant to Japan and test his adamantium claws against samurai swords and fighting skills against ninjas trained in martial arts. The fighting and chase sequences are the film's attraction, along with Jackman as Wolverine, and director of photography Ross Emery, who got his start as an assistant on The Matrix trilogy and Dark City, keeps the action in sharp, close focus without the distracting white noise of quick cuts and jittery camera shots. Wolverine's battle against knife-wielding mob assassins on top of a speeding Japanese bullet train is real-world preposterous but undeniably breathtaking and original. And while The Wolverine's showcase sequence occurs prior to the film's midway point, there's enough solid action to follow that ensures the film doesn't deflate by unrealized expectations.

    The cast is uniformly solid; it's refreshing to see mostly fresh faces and characters onscreen in yet another X-Men movie. But the film belongs to Jackman. Like Robert Downey, Jr., as Iron Man/Tony Stark and Daniel Craig as James Bond, Jackman has grown so comfortable in his defining role that it's easy to take for granted just how perfect he is at playing Wolverine, a highlight reel of one-liners and sterling action — even in the lesser-X-Men films.

    Yukio, played by Rila Fukushima, is hell on wheels.
    Yukio, played by Rila Fukushima, is hell on wheels.

    The task for The Wolverine screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank is to bring something new to the screen for the superhero, beyond a mere change of location. And so they make him mortal for much of the film. He bleeds. He bruises. And he stumbles. It's Wolverine as we haven't seen him, which heightens the stakes; face it, a mutant who can't be killed is hardly as much of an emotional investment as a wounded hero facing increasingly difficult odds. And while there isn't a strong villain heavy for Wolverine — Viper is more of a novelty and a reminder that there remain other mutants in the world — the presence of a major antagonist isn't necessarily missed with the sheer number of bad guys that keep popping up.

    Bomback and Frank also toss in a quasi-love interest/hook-up for Wolverine in Mariko, though the film is all about killing before kisses.

    Best known for directing actresses to Oscar wins in 1999's Girl, Interrupted (Angelina Jolie) and 2005's Walk the Line (Reese Witherspoon), James Mangold has been spotty with action films: the decent 3:10 to Yuma remake in 2007 and the forgettable Tom Cruise action-comedy vehicle Knight and Day in 2010. The filmmaker previously worked with Jackman on the 2001 romantic-comedy flop Kate & Leopold, and the pair fare much better in their second outing. Mangold's chief responsibility is to build a quality production around the character. He does that, and more, adding emotional depth to the character without crowding out the comic-book fun. It's an occasionally serious film that never strays from its superhero roots.

    That was X-Men Origins: Wolverine's chief failing, as the hero was far more interesting than almost anyone or anything else sharing the screen with him. The Wolverine is about restoring its namesake from his first spin-off film and the X-Men franchise from X-Men: The Last Stand, a process begun with 2011's X-Men: First Class. And judging solely by the must-see teaser in The Wolverine credits, 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past looks to offer more good things to come.

    Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.