It’s been said that a good ending can absolve a movie of a lot of poor choices that come before it; The Wolverine comes dangerously close to proving the inverse, spending a majority of its running time as a rock solid entry in the superhero genre before nearly self-destructing during a bombastic conclusion that feels ratcheted on from a lesser film altogether. But I’m getting ahead of myself, because a surprisingly engrossing film precedes the computer-generated train wreck that concludes the picture.
The only guarantee going into the film is that Hugh Jackman’s reprisal of his role as the titular Wolverine would carry on the charisma he’s brought to every iteration of the character, so it comes as no surprise that he brings the right amount of gravitas and levity to his character, not to mention the mathematically proven correct amount of abs as well. He also establishes a pretty good rapport with Tao Okamoto’s Mariko and Rila Fukushima’s Yukio, forging believable relationships that don’t deaden the film’s pace. Less successful is Svetlana Khodchenkova as the mysterious mutant Viper, who I believe is meant to stick out like a sore thumb amongst the cast and setting, but does so in a way that extends beyond design, especially as her performance progresses (and she dressed more and more like a Mortal Kombat character).
Major credit to James Mangold for managing to craft such an enjoyable picture, some of his best work in a good many years. It’s hard to nail a proper balance when the two genres you’re combining seem so stylistically opposed, but Mangold does a fine job keeping the sci-fi buggery to a minimum while amping up the Japanese crime drama aspects that feel so fresh when put together with the superhero. He also manages to stuff in some righteous blood-pumping action sequences – the best of which involves Wolverine engaging in some gravity-defying hijinx with the Yakuza atop a speeding bullet train. There’s a level of ferocity to the violence in this picture that’s appropriate both to its setting and the character, so it’s nice to see them embrace the trappings of the genre playground they’re hanging out in. It’s also nice to see Scott Frank to make a writing contribution to this picture (his first effort to hit the screen in over five years!), as you can sense an authorial presence missing from the past couple of Hugh Jackman X-Men pictures, which helps shepherd this across the finish line. But along with that credit, Mangold and Frank both will have to take the blame for that near-catastrophic finale where the film devolves into a CG-drenched episode of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, with silly reveals and hammy performances (robot suits and villainous hissing are both included).
The film even makes a great effort towards consolidating the X-Men universe that’s been established in the five films prior without disappearing up its own back-story, saving itself from becoming the mighty Ouroboros, famed mutant filmography. That said, Famke Janssen’s reprisal of her Jean Grey character from the earlier X-Men films feels needlessly prurient, with her character in lingerie in every dream sequence (granted, Wolverine is a man of base desires in the comic book, but on-screen Wolvie is considerably less pervy/uncouth). And all X-Fans should be sure to hang around through the first bit of credits for a little bit of flavor leading into next year’s Days of Future Past X-travaganza, although it feels so unnecessarily ratcheted onto this tonally different picture that it feels absurd. This is a surprisingly solid effort where I expected next to nothing, so despite it limping towards the finish line (and it’s really only about the last ten minutes of the picture that sails clean off the rails), I highly recommend allowing yourself to be absorbed into what is one of the most pleasant popcorn movie surprises of the summer so far.