Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Wolverine

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Svetlana Khodchenkova

Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: Mark Bamback, Scott Frank

If you’ve been to the cinema recently, you might have seen part of marketing campaign for the film. Apart from the obvious trailers, there have been a couple of teasers declaring “Stronger than Steel!” or “Tougher than Iron!” before the statements get clawed apart. It’s a nice idea, but it isn’t true. About the best claim The Wolverine can make is that it is less woeful than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which failed as both an adaptation and a film, to the extent that it didn’t even qualify as so bad it’s good (and I actually rewatched it the other night; even without the sense of crushing disappointment, there was little enjoyment to be had with it).

Perhaps the reasons for the less than stellar end product can be found in the troubled development. Darren Aronfsky was initially signed on to direct, before leaving the production citing personal reasons (although it was speculated that it was more to do with a lack of studio approval for his more R-rated draft), and the film was originally designed as a prequel to the first X-Men film, before morphing at some stage to more of a sequel to Last Stand.

Perhaps in part it is the more sombre, (relatively) realistic take on the character. Stripped of his healing factor for much of the film, and in a completely different country to most of his surviving allies, there isn’t quite as much room for the sort of pyrotechnics and theatrics we’ve come to expect from the X-Men franchise, and is more of a straightforward crime drama for much of the running time. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and if you’re going to take that approach with a superhero Wolverine is one of the better ones to apply it to, but it’s a mixed bag in practice; taking a superhero and putting him a thriller is innovative, at least within the cinematic universes, but the actual plot is fairly standard stuff that you’ll have seen a dozen times before. The main interest is in how that combines with the comic book stuff, but most of that has been removed.

Really, ‘fairly standard’ more or less sums up the film. Jackman is fine – perhaps a little too tall and ruggedly handsome than purists might like, but he does gruff and reluctantly heroic like no other – but the characters around him aren’t really developed that much. His most affecting relationship is with Jean Grey – Famke Janssen, reprising her role – and she’s a figment of his imagination. Well, probably. There’s nothing to say otherwise, but she’s a stupidly powerful mutant with a history of coming back from the dead, and there’s another X-Men film being shot at the moment, so who knows? His actual love interest, Mariko (Okamoto, in her film debut), is another integral character in Wolverine’s comic history, although a more obscure one beyond the comics themselves, but in the film she only just gets enough depth to rise above damsel in distress status; this isn’t a problem with Okamoto’s performance particularly, which is perfectly adequate, but more to do with the script, which does very little with her.

More interesting is Logan’s ‘bodyguard’, Yukio (Fukushima), who is blessed with some hints of wit and honour, and a livelier performance, but in terms of acting, it is Svetlana Khodchenkova as the villainous Viper who walks away with the film. She’d clearly decided that if she was going to be in a comic book film, she was going to have as much fun as she possibly could, and when your character has a foot long tongue, breathes poison and can peel her skin off how seriously can you play it? She’s a vampy delight, even if she does feel like she’s from a different film altogether.

The plot suffices, without ever desperately engaging. The notion of Logan’s healing factor being turned off might interest comic fans, if only to see how long it lasts, but it would have been more interesting if they had done more with it; as it is, it’s a plot device that reduces him from superhuman to merely the average action hero. He spends most of the day after losing his healing walking round with several gunshot wounds for Heaven’s sake. The most interesting bits are those that hint, however obliquely, towards the upcoming Days of Future Past – and given that those make up less than five minutes of the running time, at a generous estimate, that’s not a good thing.

It’s not that there isn’t fun to be had. There are a couple of entertaining set pieces, and the odd sparks of humour work well, but it’s all just so…bland. You can perhaps understand a desire to play it a little safe. When you’re making a sequel to one of the worst films of the last ten years, you might want to make sure you’ve at least got the basics down.

Not exactly a recommended film then, but there are worse ways to kill a couple of hours.

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