Joshua Reviews James Mangold’s The Wolverine [Theatrical Review]

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Summer 2013 has been an interesting cinematic venture. With enough city destroying action to level more than film’s fair share of metropolises (metropolie?), the action has been bombastic, the characterization thin and 9/11 allegories ham-fisted, all making this one of the more forgettable and truly troubling cinematic seasons in quite some time.

And then came The Wolverine. The second solo film for the X-Men mainstay, not only did this have all the makings of being just as problematic as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the previous solo picture for the character, and also the likeliest project to leave its viewers action drunk.

How wrong we all actually were.

In a shockingly character-centric take on the superhero film, The Wolverine finds Hugh Jackman once again donning the mutton chops, short hair and the iconic claws, in what may very well be the best big budget studio picture of the summer.

This time taking the character to Japan, we meet an isolationist Logan as he’s trying to escape his past. However, when a man from that very past is tossed back into the fray, asking to, before his death, say thank you to the man that once saved his life, he must take on more than his violence-filled past. A stunningly deft blend of solid character work and truly engaging action set pieces, director James Mangold has finally given us the superb solo project that this legendary berserker truly and legitimately deserves.

Prior to the release of this picture, director James Mangold tweeted a list of images from films that he said inspired this picture. With influences ranging from Chunking Express to 13 Assassins, directors like Ozu and Coppola found their work the subject of Mangold’s appreciation prior to the creation of this project, and oddly enough, it’s rather apparent. The film is shockingly crafted, getting great photography from cinematographer Ross Emery, and some solid direction from Mangold. With admittedly bombastic set pieces, the film has a great sense of drama and geography in each set piece, be it set atop a moving bullet train or on a path being walked by Logan, attempting to save the woman he had so deeply fallen for over the span of the film.

Samurai mythology heavily influenced this narrative, with a discussion of Logan as a ronin, a samurai sans-master, but even more so the film seems inspired by Western legends. With Logan the definition of the type of Western “hero” found in a film like The Outlaw Josey Wales (yet another film Mangold drew inspiration from), the film is the perfect example of just how interchangeable and connected samurai legend was to something like the mythology found within American Westerns. The film is aesthetically far more over the top and bombastic than anything like another film that inspired Mangold, Shane, but it is a mythos like the one built in that film that truly makes this a superb motion picture.

The greatest compliment payable to this film is that, oddly enough, this becomes as rich a character picture as one could ever imagine being released in this type of body. The final act does ultimately become problematic, but the first two acts are assured and perfectly toned, blending the inherent sarcasm that makes this character so great, while also having the melancholy and immortal sadness that makes Wolverine one of the richest characters in all of Marvel’s canon. Unlike the snarky playboy Tony Stark or the buff god with daddy issues Thor, Wolverine’s plight feels oddly real, and his melancholy palpable. There are some truly great moments here, be it the flashbacks involving Logan’s most influential past flame to the idea of him contemplating an offer to receive the one thing he, the “soldier,” could want, an honorable death, the film is a wonderfully entertaining action picture with a real, shockingly beating heart under the surface.

Performance wise, the film is across the board good. Hugh Jackman is still one of the most enjoyable actors to watch in this type of picture, as his love and understanding of this character is as deeply running as any actor currently a part of a blockbuster franchise. Think the perfect fit of Robert Downey Jr. but with an actual heart, Jackman is not only perfectly cast aesthetically and acting wise, but his understanding of the role is really top tier. Rounded out by performances from the likes of Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima and Hiroyuki Sanada, and you have a really engaging cast making this action picture something entirely unseen this entire summer: entertaining.

With a final act that leaves an admittedly sour taste in the viewer’s mouth, the first two acts alone make this picture more than worth seeing. With Mangold crafting here a superb film that is both a perfectly passed action film and a remarkably dense character study of one of today’s greatest comic characters. Action packed in small, tactile, way that the rest of this summer’s fair has disturbingly not been, The Wolverine is the last film one would have expected to be the film of the summer, but if only more summer blockbusters took this route. We’d all be a little better for it.

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