When the claw-knuckled mutant known as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is summoned from semi-feral self-exile in the Yukon by an emissary of Yashida, the dying Japanese billionaire he once saved from atomic obliteration in Nagasaki (Hal Yamanouchi), the darndest thing happens: A movie actually concerned with plot and character ensues. And there are no giant robots involved until The Wolverine reaches its disappointingly ordinary end.
Until that point, however, director James Mangold – shooting a script penned by Mark Bomback, Scott Frank and Christopher McQuarrie – fashions the unlikeliest of summer superhero movies. It restores the tarnished lustre to this most fan-beloved of Marvel characters by doing precisely what Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s near-sacred 1982 run did: It pumps some feeling into the guy along with his muscles and steel talons and puts him in situations where actual drama occurs.
For those unacquainted with The Wolverine or with the X-Men universe from which he pounced, our hero is an ageless and pained immortal haunted by his past and longing for mortality. That’s why Yashida’s offer of death to Logan (Wolverine’s credit-card name) is so tempting. But then some monks dispense with robes and start firing randomly into the crowd at Yashida’s funeral. Turns out the old man’s family may be the target of intense yakuza aggression, and Wolverine, his powers depleted by sinister intervention, must spend the rest of the movie trying to protect Yashida’s daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from all manner of assaults. But it gives him something to live for.
Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line), a director better known for muscular dramatics than muscular mutants, is clearly aiming for a more down-to-earth superhero movie with The Wolverine, especially compared with the knuckleheaded X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). He nearly succeeds, at least insofar as replanting the character in a plot that falls closely into the tradition of such endangered gaijin thrillers as House of Bamboo, The Yakuza and even the Bond-in-Japan You Only Live Twice. While the movie’s surplus of ninjas, samurai swords and yakuza thugs is a little thick for cultural credibility, in this universe it certainly beats morphing mutants for novelty.
Out of his element and lost in translation, Wolverine is charismatically incarnated by Jackman in the actor’s sixth kick at the claws. He character is forced to deal with situations that come without warning and at ferocious velocity, never more so than in a sequence atop a speeding bullet train that’s as thrilling as any fight sequence this side of the Bourne trilogy.
I’d wager, in fact, that Mangold spent more time watching those movies than the previous five X-Men movies, for The Wolverine truly plays more as a hyperkinetic, close-quarter, multinational action thriller than as a CGI-driven comic spectacular. At least until that giant robot shows up, which feels more like an intrusion by commercial pressure than an attack by Wolverine’s natural predators.
Whether or not this flies in the unforgiving fan world remains to be seen. But for those less intemperately invested, The Wolverine will come as a welcome and bracing surprise: An almost human-scaled superhero movie about a guy who goes to die in Japan and ends up beating his way back to life.