Director: James Mangold
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamato
3 (out of 5) Globes
In “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the broodiest franchise member was treated to a joyless backstory machine that ended with the ripped hulk shot with an amnesia gun. (Cue countless critics making jokes about audiences wishing the same.) The bar was set so low that all the inevitable second one had to achieve was a basic watchability. And so it has. “The Wolverine,” like its title, is a relatively stripped-down affair, character-driven (to a point) where its predecessor was about special effects that all but consumed its lead.
Loosely cribbed from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s 1982 run, it’s essentially “Wolverine Goes to Japan.” Guilt-ridden over the death of squeeze Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, who files ghostly cameos), Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman) has once again run off to solitude, this time going Jeremiah Johnson in the woods. He’s nevertheless tracked down and summoned by a wealthy man he ludicrously helped outrun an H-bomb blast in WWII. He gets caught up in intrigue, which function as excuses for a bulky guy with claws protruding from his hands to tussle with yakuza henchmen, ninjas and — why not? — a robot samurai.
The director is James Mangold, a serious, patient guy who’s nevertheless had a bizarre career. (On one side is “Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma”; on the other is “Kate & Leopold” and “Knight and Day.”) He’s not into effects-heavy visual noise. He’s slow and yet kinetic enough to make a chase scene atop a downtown bullet train have a delightful speed and shape.
"The Wolverine" never completely loses the character, as the first film did, yet it still loses sight of a genuinely novel story direction. The film starts out as a miserable character study: Every night our hero, his hair grown out like Alan Moore, suffers horrid dreams; every morning he awakes amid a pile of empty whiskey bottles. The film poses a novel question: Why would an immortal in so much psychological pain — whose physical pain is, alas, only temporary — want to keep living? He’s offered a way out, if a questionable one.
But a summer movie in which a beloved superhero toys with euthanasia isn’t going to happen. This heavy question is soon buried under (admittedly entertaining) fight scenes and a convoluted conspiracy, which also involves the film’s only other mutant: a she-snake (Svetlana Khodchenkova) with a slithery poison tongue. That “The Wolverine” brings heavy issues up at all is appreciated, but it’s a reminder that brainy comics don’t often yield brainy movies.