Hugh Jackman in "The Wolverine."
"We all want to see a mammal ... " goes Elizabeth Bradley's poem in this week's New Yorker. "Something, preferably, / that could do us harm. There's a long list: / bear, moose, wolf, wolverine." Elizabeth's right: The box office tallies don't lie.
The beast in question isn't above bringing the pain, in more ways than one. All signs pointed to yes for "The Wolverine," the latest flick in the long-evolving mutant franchise that is "X-Men," based on the Marvel Comics books. First, there are director James Mangold (whose bona fides include "Copland" and "3:10 to Yuma") and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Scott Frank and Christopher McQuarrie. OK, reading Bomback's resume may induce the dry heaves (his best script so far is "Live Free or Die Hard," so just imagine the rest), but Frank wrote the snappy "Dead Again" and "The Lookout," while McQuarrie's an Oscar winner for "The Usual Suspects."
And by choosing the seminal 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller "Wolverine" run for source material, the franchise wisely turns its back on the hot mess that was 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." What could go wrong? Let's call it a failure of nerve. If one is to make a mutant ronin noir, one might as well double down on the noir -- or, for that matter, the perfectly functional source material -- rather than continually back-pedaling into tiresome cartoon-blockbuster tropes.
Granted, "The Wolverine" does feature a handy amount of samurai theatrics, tied to the aggro mutant's arrival in Tokyo. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, as charmingly gruff-intense as ever) comes at the behest of a man (Hal Yamanouchi) whom the superhero once saved from disintegration in Nagasaki, and who now owns and lends his name to tech giant Yashida. The mogul has a surprise proposal: Using a newly discovered method, the tormented Wolverine (aka Logan) can end his curse of eternal life by passing the power to Yashida (who, y'know, wouldn't mind having it).
Shortly after Logan succumbs to the power-sapping procedure of an ominous doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the yakuza and a "Black Clan" of ninja warriors begin making trouble, and sides are drawn up. Yashida's sexy granddaughter Mariko (the unfortunately blank Tao Okamoto) falls for Logan; the likes of ninja Harada (Will Yun Lee) and Mariko's father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) attack; and Yashida's red-headed assassin associate Yukio (a subtle yet alert Rila Fukushima) sticks by Logan in battle after battle.
Handsome but flatfooted, "The Wolverine" comes tantalizingly close to working, which makes it all the more disappointing that director Mangold comes up short. Some visual poetry inspired by Miller's artwork and a couple of thrilling executed action scenes early in the picture give way to a sinking suspicion that it's all in service of particularly pointless melodrama and, worse, a stupefying, been-there-done-that-every-summer-weekend extended climax. And the less said about Dr. Snake Woman (Viper, that is), the better.
It's a small victory that "The Wolverine" can't quite be called run-of-the-mill, but its parable of a reluctant "soldier" who just needs a little paperback romance and fight therapy to exorcise his demons doesn't quite pay off either.
Rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language. Two hours, six minutes.
- Peter Canavese