Friday, July 26, 2013

The Wolverine: Claws for delight

The Wolverine (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi action, mild sensuality and fleeting profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.26.13

I’ve never understood why critics sharpened their claws so gleefully while savaging 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Few bona-fide actors have inhabited a superhero role with the panache Hugh Jackman brings to this Canadian-born berserker, and that earlier solo adventure was just fine, in my book.

Logan (Hugh Jackman) finds himself helplessly manacled, his claws unable to extend,
as the sinister Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) reveals that this imprisonment is
merely one element of her horrible plans. Still to appear: the dread Silver Samurai.
Sure, it lacked the wit and overall snap of The Avengers, but that’s true of most big-screen superhero epics. The more important observation is that X-Men Origins: Wolverine was far, far better than, say, Daredevil or either Fantastic Four bomb.

And, for the purposes of our discussion, Jackman’s newly released sequel. The Wolverine, is better still.

Writers Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank focus on the key element of Wolverine’s character: that he’s a modern ronin, a samurai without a lord or master to serve. This definition applies to the X-Men mythos in both comic books and big-screen adaptations, where Wolverine may or may not consider himself part of the team at any given moment, depending on recent events.

Building further on that core, McQuarrie & Co. have constructed a narrative from several of the X-Men/Wolverine comic book story arcs that found our clawed protagonist in Japan, a country that understands and practices the same warrior’s code of honor by which he lives.

Perhaps the surprise success of the big-screen adaptation of Kick-Ass had something to do with this, thanks to that saga’s flamboyant, sword-wielding character of Hit Girl; perhaps it’s mere coincidence. Whatever the reason, we finally get live-action embodiments of Mariko Yashida and Yukio — characters co-created in the Marvel Comics universe by writer Chris Claremont and artists John Byrne and Frank Miller — and brought to excellent life by Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima, respectively (although costume designer Isis Mussenden shouldn’t have based the latter’s look quite so heavily from the aforementioned Hit Girl).

Angst-ridden journeys of the soul always make good sagas, and this one’s no exception. The core plot doesn’t always hold together — the barrage of double- and triple-crosses makes it rather difficult to separate some of the good guys from the bad guys — but the destination isn’t nearly as important as the trip itself.

One other caveat: McQuarrie, Bomback and Frank assume that viewers either know the Marvel universe or have seen all previous X-Men films, which I regard as mildly presumptuous. For the benefit of newbies, then, a few key facts left unexplained:

Logan (Wolverine) is essentially immortal, thanks to a scientific process that laced his bones with the indestructible metal allow adamantium, and a “healing factor” that quickly repairs all wounds. He’s also much older than one would expect, and doesn’t show his age. Finally, he’s currently consumed with guilt and grief over having been forced to kill X-Men teammate Jean Grey, when she “went evil” as Dark Phoenix (that crisis depicted in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand).

This new solo adventure finds Logan brooding in an unspecified Canadian wilderness, surfacing to deal some payback to thrill-seeking hunters. That’s long enough to be noticed by Yukio, a feisty, sword-wielding samurai bodyguard. She has been sent to find Logan, and request that he accompany her back to Japan, where an old friend — Lord Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a wealthy industrialist — wishes to say goodbye before he dies.

We’re granted Yashida’s back-story via a series of brief flashbacks that occasionally interrupt the core story, and we gradually learn that Logan saved the young Japanese soldier from certain death when American forces dropped its second atomic bomb on Nagasaki during World War II. A grateful Yashida tried to present his ceremonial sword to Logan at that point, but the latter gently refused, promising to collect it at some unspecified time in the future.

That time appears to have arrived, and honor demands that Logan grant his long-ago comrade’s dying wish.

Logan and Yukio arrive at Yashida’s heavily guarded estate at a tempestuous time. The elderly industrialist hovers at death’s door, despite the best efforts of his doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a sinister-looking, green-eyed blonde. Logan is equally curious about Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko, who seems to have serious issues with her curt and condescending father, Shingen (acclaimed stage and film star Hiroyuki Sanada).

Business intrigue fills the air, with Yashida’s imminent death necessitating the transfer of his corporate empire to ... somebody. This instability has prompted threats from local Yakuza thugs, under the control of ... somebody. Then there’s the mysterious Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee), a master archer and member of the Black Hand, a cadre of ninja warriors tasked with protecting House Yashida. Harada, in turn, answers to ... somebody.

Ordinarily, these disparate elements would ring Wolverine’s heightened alarm bells, but he’s further distracted by an offer from the dying Lord Yashida, who claims — after years of medical research — to have discovered a way to remove Logan’s invulnerability, thus allowing him to live a normal life, and then die gracefully. Logan, beset by constant nightmares involving Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, returning to her role), finds the offer tempting. Perhaps.

But then all hell breaks loose, with Yakuza goons, Black Hand warriors, Yashida’s bodyguards and other persons unspecified shooting, slicing and dicing each other. Mariko appears to be the primary target, and so Logan takes her under his wing as they flee across Japan. Along the way, he discovers — to his horror — that his healing factor doesn’t seem to work any more. He’s being hurt ... and with Mariko to protect from massive enemy forces, this sudden weakness couldn’t have come at a worse time.

On top of which — and this really isn’t a spoiler, since her cover is blown pretty quickly — Yashida’s doctor turns out to be Viper, an über-deadly supervillain with a ghastly snake’s tongue and a rather novel method of dispersing venom.

Although these numerous elements allow director James Mangold to stage plenty of slickly choreographed action scenes — none better than a crazed, hell-for-leather skirmish atop the cars of a speeding bullet train — he also ratchets back to allow Logan plenty of time for soul-searching, along with time for the developing bond with Mariko.

Indeed, this film resonates — lingers as more than a flashy series of battle scenes — because of Logan’s deftly crafted relationships with Mariko and Yukio. Okamoto lends gentleness, dignity and unexpected flashes of defiant spirit to her complex portrayal of Mariko, who transcends the superficial characters generally found in such films.

I’m reminded of the way both Akiko Wakabayashi and Mie Hama similarly humanized the otherwise cartoonish elements of 1967’s You Only Live Twice, along the way encouraging more heartfelt emotion from Sean Connery’s James Bond, than that film probably deserved. The same is true here; Okamoto is a well-conceived and sensitively played heroine-in-peril, who in true Shakespearean fashion must contend with a family not known for its finer instincts.

Logan’s growing bond with Yukio, on the other hand, is purely professional: the mutual admiration of professional assassins. Fukushima is equal parts sparkle and sass as this jokey, black-garbed killer with day-glo purple cellophane tresses, and the actress knows how to employ her mocking smile before dispatching another goon.

Khodchenkova is deliciously, shiveringly scary as Viper, clearly up to no good from the moment we meet her. Sanada is properly imperious as Mariko’s father, while Brian Tee is memorably smarmy as Noburo Mori, a jerk businessman betrothed to Mariko.

The blank-faced Lee, alas, doesn’t make much of an impression as Harada.

Production designer François Audouy has a field day with the various Japanese locales, from the soothing calm of a small fishing community, to the palatial surrounds of Lord Yashida’s home, and the mountain-hugging opulence of the third-act Big Bad Villains’ lair. Mangold and editor Michael McCusker pace their film well, so that it doesn’t flag at 126 minutes, and cinematographer Ross Emery grants both painterly beauty and big-city bustle to these disparate settings within the Land of the Rising Sun.

On the other hand, the after-the-fact (i.e. fake) 3D effects add nothing to the film, so save your money.

All told, this is a solid superhero entry: a stylish romp with a welcome undertone of character pathos. And it clearly sets up events for next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, so be sure to linger in your seats until all the credits are done.

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