The narrative for months before and during the making of the movie by James Mangold and Hugh Jackman was a borderline campaign apology that read something like: “Please excuse the inexcusable ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine.’ We are starting over here. Please take this journey with us as we explore the Wolverine story you’ve always wanted to see on screen.” And so the question for fans is: did the pair succeed in this goal? The answer, in conclusion, is a resounding "no," but it’s but not for want of trying.
“The Wolverine” is a story of inner demons, guilt, the meaning of fate, mortality and redemption for the character of Logan, mixed with love, intrigue, betrayals, honor and of course, lots and lots of action. And while that meaty stew sounds appetizing, much of it feels tuneless in execution, even though the film is intermittently engaging for some of its first half.
Opening up over a tranquil lake and village, Mangold's picture begins with an uncharacteristically quiet prologue. We glean (without being told or force fed, though that doesn’t last long) that it's 1945 in Nagasaki; the quiet skies interrupted by the purr of American B-52 bomber planes about to drop the atomic bomb and effectively end WWII (and every living person in this city). A prisoner of war, Logan (Hugh Jackman) uses his mutant powers to save a Japanese soldier's life (played by Ken Yamamura), and the man, stunned and grateful by his enemy's humanity, vows to one day repay this debt.
Fast forward to the future. Logan is a man still haunted by his past and the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand” (wherein he killed the woman he loved, Jean Grey, to protect many after the powerful mutant fell to madness). Located on the fringes of Alaska or Northern Canada, Logan is living in the woods like an animal and riddled with nightmares (that include Jean Grey as played by Famke Janssen once again). A questionable offer appears in the night via a mysterious Japanese girl named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), clearly more deadly than she looks. Yashida, the soldier Logan saved from sure death (now played by Hal Yamanouchi), is now a dying old billionaire looking to repay The Wolverine and free him from the painful prison that is immortality and outliving his loved ones (how Yashida knows how Logan actually feels deep down in his soul is conveniently never explained and the audience is supposed to take it at face value).
And so “The Wolverine” sends Logan to Japan on an noir-like errand where he falls in love with Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). This journey is filled with twists, turns, deceit, lies, and drama that builds to a dizzying, loud crescendo that unfortunately does the already-precarious film no favors. Those looking for the Wolverine comic tale conceived of by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller in 1982 will be woefully disappointed. While the movie wisely uses that doomed romance storyline as a jumping off point, it garishly dumps a kitchen sink full of conflicts onto what feels, initially, like a worthy narrative. Effectively super-sizing itself with every possible cliché that could come out of Japan, “The Wolverine” pours on ninjas, samurais, yakuzas, bullet trains, shady politicians, dishonorable fathers, more ninjas, more yakuzas and gigantic robot samurais. The only deadly element missing is the poisonous blowfish or the blowgun dart to the neck (though the latter aspect essentially appears in another form).
The frustrating script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank feels like a Hollywood computer went through an admirable screenplay (in the would-be vein of the dark psychology perfected by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer in “The Dark Knight” series) and inserted big action set pieces at the clockwork-like moments they're supposed to appear (regardless of how jarring it can be) as if to ingratiate itself to superhero fans and reach the quota these movies are obligated to fulfill (whatever elements of Christopher McQuarrie’s original script are left are unknown and he doesn’t receive a screen credit).
While “The Wolverine” gets admirably quiet and introspective in moments when Logan and the object of his affection Mariko get romantic (yes, there are actually a few Yasujiro Ozu references), right around the corner is yet another surprise kidnapping. Worse, there’s really no reason (emotional or otherwise) that the two are in love at all other than to toss a romance into the story. It’s as if “The Wolverine” is written in the “Super Mario Bros.,” “Legend of Zelda,” classic video game paradigm: the second the hero rescues the princess she is whisked away with a YOINK by any number of colorful baddies. Oh, well, onto the next level to try again and ultimately you can get her in the big bad castle in level 9 (which is essentially what transpires). Even the “becoming mortal” aspect of the movie is completely half-hearted and almost useless. Wolverine goes from totally invulnerable to sort of invulnerable at best. And of course, being weakened only lasts so long, so there’s really zero stakes for the character who can be healed from any calamity.
While “The Wolverine” has a somewhat strong first half and a terrible last act (we’ll get to that in a second), even the “good” part of the movie is aggravatingly uneven. One sequence with a grizzly bear sums it up: this scene is dark, emotional, character-building and contains no dubious superhero elements, but it's undone (and your suspension of disbelief is thrown out the window) by what is a poor excuse for a CGI grizzly. While the action scenes are sometimes intense, they are often times just as lousy as the sequences in Mangold’s very incoherent action comedy “Knight and Day” (with similar cheap VFX to boot; see the utterly silly bullet train set piece).
At its core, “The Wolverine” has a lot of fundamental flaws. It possesses a lot of good ideas, but many of them feel undercooked, botched in execution or given short shrift at the expense of what amounts to too many villains. “The Wolverine” desperately tries to convey the fact Logan has nothing left to live for and that his immortality is a “curse,” but hardly is that expressed by the character himself. There’s abundant "show-but-don’t-tell-issues." Various characters tell us about his pain like a taunt that he maybe feels (including the Jean Grey dream presence; a rather cheap device to exploit his pain), but we’re rarely shown Wolverine in true emotional turmoil (other than sporting unruly hair and living in the middle of nowhere). We're to believe that Wolverine is at the rock-bottom of his soul, but the only way this is articulated is through his guilt-ridden dream conversations with Jean Grey where he inevitably wakes up screaming "noooooo!" with claws extended and at full attention.
Uneven, but still occasionally engaging early on, "The Wolverine" takes a massive nosedive in its absolutely ridiculous third act. It’s as if Mangold’s movie gives up, forgets the impressive groundwork it built and panders to the blueprint-like notion that superhero movies need to have epic yet tone-deaf conclusions. The amount that "The Wolverine" betrays itself in its power-packed final act—something seemingly borrowed from the "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" playbook—is inexcusable and it's almost staggering to believe the same people made this finale (are we sure Gavin Hood and his writers didn’t take over at this point?).
Ultimately, “The Wolverine" wants to have it both ways: a dark character story and an action-packed superhero film. But it never reconciles the two notes, and thus becomes more and more atonal as it wobbles towards its symphonically jarring ending (don’t even get us started on Viper). Suffused with elements fit to explore dark, gritty, emotional texture, full of intriguing ideas and weighty motifs, the strained movie can never quite capitalize on its substantive, existential themes and is ultimately a maddeningly frustrating effort that is undone at almost every turn. “The Wolverine” ultimately sells itself out with its impossibly stupid conclusion that even betrays the honorable emotional catalyst for the film in the first place simply because the film needs a villain cherry on top of everything else. Perhaps there’s a good movie within “The Wolverine” (maybe McQuarrie's draft?), but eventually, its exasperating disloyalty to itself may leave you in a Logan-like berserker fury of disappointment and resent. [C-]