While it never seems to be as high-profile as the “Iron Man” or “Spider-Man” franchises, the “X-Men” series is actually the longest-running Marvel Comics series on the big screen, and it’s the one that opened the gates to Marvel’s current dominance. For my money, “X-Men” remains the most interesting, with a fistful of well-etched characters, rather sympathetic villains and mutant powers that allow for a wild variety of special effects. (Personal fave: Toad.)
While there’s already been one spin-off film for the most popular “X-Men” character — 2008′s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” — the new installment, titled simply “The Wolverine,” picks up where 2006′s “X-Men: The Last Stand” left off; it draws heavily on the 1982 comics by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, which saw Wolverine land in Japan to battle yakuza, fall for an ebony-tressed beauty and teach English. Oh wait, sorry — that was “Charisma Man.”
“The Wolverine” finds the ornery Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) simmering even more than usual. He’s haunted by the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) at his own hands, worn down by years of immortality and has retreated into a hermit’s life. He is tracked down, however, by Yukio (Rila Fukushima) — a ninja who apparently shops in Harajuku — who convinces him to visit Tokyo to say goodbye to his old friend Yashida, whose life Logan saved in the war.
Once in Japan, Logan learns that Yashida actually wants to “relieve” Logan of the burden of his immortality by technologically transferring it to himself. Logan declines, but soon finds himself in a web of intrigue involving the yakuza, Yashida’s power-hungry son (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). Needless to say, our hero sides with the pretty girl, and after rescuing her from a suicidal attack by bare-chested yakuza with enough ink to give Toru Hashimoto a brain aneurysm, the two hit the road.
For a superhero movie to stand out these days, it’s got to have something beyond a stale three-act narrative and gobs of CGI. Director James Mangold, better known for character-driven dramas such as “Walk the Line” or “Girl, Interrupted,” manages to rise above the crowd. While it’s got about every Japan cliché you can think of — from ninja to love hotels to Tokyo Tower — the setting and swordplay do provide a fresh feel, especially an acrobatic duel set atop a speeding bullet train, which makes the similar rooftop chase in “Skyfall” seem tame by comparison. Fukushima, in particular, combines a slightly alien demeanor with bad-ass cool that looks set to inflame the hearts of a million fanboys.
Mangold has Wolverine go through a bit of an existential crisis in this one, and he and Jackman work hard to make this a character we care about. Fortunately, the duo don’t take themselves as seriously as Mssrs. Nolan and Bale, throwing plenty of self-deprecating humor into the mix too, before finally giving way to CGI overload in the final reel’s boss battle. The superhero genre may be on the brink of overkill, but “Wolverine” proves that in the right hands, it can still entertain.
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