Now here’s a comic-book movie. In a summer that’s delivered one overstuffed Phase Two sequel and a bloated reboot designed to establish a whole new universe of interconnected franchises, The Wolverine has a self-contained efficiency that’s hard to resist. Though technically the second solo outing for everyone’s favorite razor-clawed, reluctant team player—the less said about X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the better—the film rarely feels like a sequel. Nor is it a prequel or an origin story; it doesn’t payoff prior installments or set up future ones, but seems to exist almost out of time, for the simple, quaint purpose of pitting its iconic mutant superhero against samurais, ninjas, and vicious yakuza thugs. Remember in X2 when Wolvie went berserk on an invading task force? The Wolverine takes that moment and stretches it out across a two-hour timeframe, adding an Eastern flavor and a more formidable army of expendable foes.
There’s a whiff of the mythic to this Japan-set adventure, beginning with the monolithic singularity of its title—think the Batman—and extending to its portrayal of the erstwhile X-Man as a wandering, ageless ronin, searching for the meaning of his ceaseless existence. After a spectacular prologue set during the bombing of Nagasaki, The Wolverine leaps to present day; here Logan (Hugh Jackman, looking properly grizzled under a mountain of untamed facial hair) lays low in the wilderness, having taken a vow of nonviolence. “Yeah, right,” fans might rightfully scoff, and sure enough, it isn’t long before the one-time Weapon X is meting out poetic justice to an unethical hunter. That inciting incident is straight out of Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s original Wolverine miniseries, which sent the fighting Canuck to the land of the rising sun to tangle with swordsmen. Following suit, The Wolverine finds its eponymous brute summoned to Tokyo by an old acquaintance, an elderly man (Will Yun Lee) whose obsession with Logan’s seeming immortality sets the somewhat-perfunctory plot into motion.
In pure narrative terms, what follows is fairly underwhelming: Wolverine gets mixed up in a family feud and ends up playing bodyguard to the old man’s docile, delicate granddaughter (Tao Okamoto). Years and miles removed from his superpowered teammates, Jackman’s tortured protagonist often looks like the only interesting personality onscreen; even the villains, including a venomous femme fatale (Svetlana Khodchenkova), seem like placeholders. Yet as a showcase for the charms and ruthless talents of the titular hero, The Wolverine gets the job done. Over the course of five movies—six, if you count his brilliant, one-line cameo in First Class—Jackman has made this character his own. Here, he plays Logan as both a comically gruff fish-out-of-water and a warrior wearied by the burden of his sins. (Famke Janssen’s slain Jean Grey appears to him in dreams, doling out a beyond-the-grave guilt trip.) Mostly, however, Logan remains a man of action, and the film has great fun throwing waves of new challenges at him. The script’s most inspired idea, arriving early in the film, is to rob the mutant of his uncanny healing abilities. Far from rendering him ineffectual, Superman 2-style, this vulnerability only seems to enhance his machismo cool: He takes bullets like a champ, limps into battle, and—in the film’s most giddily masochistic scene—turns his fearsome claws on himself.
Improbably sitting at the helm of this solid action distraction is James Mangold, a Hollywood hireling whose prior forays into genre cinema—the Tom Cruise vehicle Knight And Day, the toothless remake of 3:10 To Yuma—scarcely suggested a gift for splash-panel spectacle. Yet the setpieces, including an astounding skirmish atop a speeding bullet train, possess a kinetic grace largely absent from this season’s other big-budget offerings. Mangold brings style but not substance, which isn’t so fatal for a late-summer pulp blockbuster, though the director oversold—in pre-release interviews—the supposed influence of his cinematic heroes. (There are few traces of Tokyo Story in this Tokyo story.) Truly great comic-book adaptations require a visionary’s touch; one can only imagine what an auteur like Darren Aronofsky, who was originally attached to direct, would have done with the material. But it would be foolish to undervalue a superhero film that feels so untethered, so free of the duties of franchise-building. Blessedly, The Wolverine is not a preview for next summer’s X-Men movie—that is, of course, until the obligatory preview for next summer’s X-Men movie. These days, being completely self-contained is a luxury comic-book movies rarely possess.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details we can't reveal in our review, visit The Wolverine's Spoiler Space.