Thursday, August 01, 2013

Culture Shock 08.01.13: Jackman makes 'The Wolverine' his own

Hugh Jackman wasn't the first choice to play Wolverine. Nor was James Mangold ("3:10 to Yuma") the first director attached to "The Wolverine." All films are as much the result of chance as design. But in the case of "The Wolverine" it shows.

Dougray Scott was the first pick to portray the scrappy mutant in 2000's "X-Men," but he dropped out when production on "Mission: Impossible II" fell behind. Now, it's nearly impossible to imagine anyone other than Jackman in the role. Like Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark and Christopher Reeve's Kal-El, Jackman's Logan is definitive, even if he isn't a carbon copy of the comic-book character.

By contrast, Mangold and screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank never put a distinctive mark on the film, which is loosely based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's four-issue "Wolverine" miniseries published in 1982. (Not that Claremont and Miller get screen credit for their contribution.)

That is a shame, because there are seeds sown here that, with a bit of tending, could have born fruit.

"The Wolverine" picks up immediately after the events of "X-Men: The Last Stand," in which Logan was forced to kill the love of his life, Jean Grey, after she lost control of her powers, went all Dark Phoenix on everyone, and threatened to destroy the world. Heartbroken, depressed and blaming himself for Jean's death, which is strictly true, Logan has retreated to the isolation of the wilderness.

But even playing hermit can't keep Wolverine completely off the radar. He is tracked down by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mutant who can foretell people's deaths. She persuades Logan to fly back with her to Japan, where her employer, an old acquaintance of Logan's, wants to settle a longstanding debt.

During World War II, the ageless Logan was a prisoner of war in Nagasaki the day the atomic bomb fell, and he saved the life of a soldier named Yashida. Now on his high-tech deathbed, a billionaire industrialist Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) wants to give Logan a gift no one else can: mortality.

With the help of some superscience, Yashida will get Logan's super-healing powers, while Logan will get to live a normal life, growing old and eventually dying, ending the "curse" of immortality.

Yet Wolverine's existential crisis doesn't last long before taking a backseat to the Yashida family's internal power struggles, which are far less compelling.

When the Yakuza attempt to assassinate Yashida's granddaughter and designated successor, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), Wolverine is forced back into the "best there is at what he does" role he has tried to escape since Jean's death. Wolverine, the "ronin" or masterless samurai, is back in protector mode.

Only this time, Wolverine's healing powers aren't working, which makes fighting an army of criminals, and later ninjas, a lot more difficult.

What follows is the movie's best action set piece, with Logan and Mariko fighting their way across Tokyo. Afterward, it's all downhill en route to an overblown ending that looks like it wandered in from some other movie. When we finally learn the villain's master plan, the most striking revelation is that nothing we've just seen makes a lick of sense.

Still, Jackman makes it almost worthwhile. He is an engaging presence, and while he doesn't have much chemistry with either of his love interests, Mariko or Jean (Famke Janssen, appearing in several dream sequences), his role-reversed relationship with Yukio is fun while it lasts. If "The Wolverine" is about anything, it's about Logan as seen through the eyes of the women in his life.

How might "The Wolverine" have been different had director Darren Aronofsky not dropped out? Maybe its themes of life, death and immortality, which Aronofsky explored so well in "The Fountain" (also starring Jackman), would have been better examined? But we'll never know.

That's chance, and life, for you.

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