In the run up to “The Wolverine” James Mangold has readily been opening up to fans (particularly via his Twitter presence) who are curious as to what’s going on with the popular title mutant. “The Wolverine” arrives as a follow-up to “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” which wasn’t exactly a failure ($373 million worldwide) but an underperformer compared to the $459 million take of “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Furthermore, the film was tainted by a high-profile leak of the film’s workprint, an indignity hammered home by the film’s perceived (lack of) quality: it (deservedly) earned the worst reviews in the series. The four-year gap between “Wolverine” films is largely Fox’s attempt to distance themselves from the earlier film, along with the more spartan title and Mangold’s strategic revelation that the film takes place in a contemporary setting, ignoring the first effort’s final scenes set in 1979.
And to say that the choices seem more high-minded than you’d expect for an “X-Men” film is a pretty timid assessment. Certain choices make a great deal of sense: Wolverine’s always been a lone wolf, and the character and Hugh Jackman’s resemblance to Clint Eastwood makes “The Outlaw Josey Wales” a logical pick. The breathless contemporary action of Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins” also rings true, particularly considering the film is set in Japan, and the idea of Wolverine coming-and-going into town like a transient ronin speaks to the spirit of “Shane,” if not all of its content. And “Chinatown” and “The French Connection” have long been revered hallmarks of any American filmmaker looking to get a little heavy, even if we doubt any “X-Men” film will reach that quality.
The question here is twofold. First, does Mangold have the goods to make a film anywhere near the ballpark of these films? He’s set the bar pretty high for a guy whose last film was the middling “Knight And Day.” Mangold has a couple of strong films on his resume like “Cop Land," his indie debut "Heavy" and the Oscar-winning “Walk The Line." But the guy’s only as strong as his material, and when it’s bad, he’ll sink to the weakness of a poor script: the strong cast of “Identity” kept it from resembling straight-to-DVD garbage, while it took Ebert and Roeper’s intervention to make Mangold ditch an incest subplot in “Kate And Leopold." And again, coming off the lightweight, mega-budgeted “Knight And Day,” what business does he have comparing his next film to “Floating Weeds”?
Of course, we’re talking the sixth film in thirteen years featuring a muscle-bound heartthrob with knives in his hands, but does anyone think any moment in “The Wolverine” is really going to remind viewers of “Floating Weeds”? And is that moment going to be courtesy of Mark Bomback, who was the last writer to re-write the Christopher McQuarrie-Scott Frank script? This is the same Bomback who wrote “Live Free Or Die Hard” and the “Total Recall” remake, both of which obviously had their share of Ozu inspirations. Obviously.
Mangold should be free to find new ways to distinguish his film from the predecessors (particularly "X-Men Origins: Wolverine"). And these listed inspirations do make us a bit curious for a moment, but let’s be serious: this is still a summer movie called “The Wolverine.” With Mangold’s Twitter talk, he’s revealed an active mind who finds personal inspirations in a few fantastic movies. But this is Fox, this is a “Die Hard” screenwriter, and this is a superhero movie. We'd argue at the end of the day, while references might excite the high-minded nerd, the general aspirations of "The Wolverine" are to show that those involved have gained a little wisdom from how everything went wrong last time. A trailer has been promised for the end of March: let’s see how much reminds us of “Happy Together.”
"The Wolverine" opens on July 26th.