Not many actors play the same character in six different films, with a seventh on the way – the time-traveling “Days of Future Past” movie that will link the first three X-Men films with the groovy 60s-era “First Class.” Not since the days of cliffhanger serials has anyone played a super-hero six times in a row. The most refreshing thing about “The Wolverine” is that Hugh Jackman is not at all tired of playing the tortured mutant Logan. He’s still peeling back layers of the character, slipping past superhero conventions to create one of the best screen portrayals of an immortal.
As Logan is told early in “The Wolverine,” the great challenge facing an immortal is running out of things to live for. After a century and a half of life, Logan spends his nights dreaming about a peaceful afterlife with Jean Grey, the fellow mutant he was forced to kill in “X-Men: The Last Stand.” (This movie is a surprisingly direct sequel to that much-maligned final X-Men film, and there’s quite a bit of Famke Janssen in it. Wolverine isn’t just dreaming about her; she haunts him, perhaps literally, given the vast psychic powers she possessed in life.) Logan has withdrawn to a life of solitude in the forest, swearing every night to the ghost of Jean that he won’t hurt anyone else. He whispers an apology to her right before inevitably breaking that promise. There are a lot of asses in this world that need kicking, and the Wolverine has a talent for finding them..
It turns out that Logan was a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II (he didn’t have his nearly-indestructible metal skeleton and claws yet, so he was easier to take down back then.) He was in a prison camp in Nagasaki when a certain plane flew overhead and dropped a single bomb. Not only did Logan survive the resulting atomic blast, but he saved a Japanese soldier named Yashida, who had the compassion and integrity to set about freeing prisoners right before the bomb went off. In the modern day, Yashida is a billionaire industrialist dying of cancer, who invites his old friend Logan to come to Tokyo and say goodbye. But he also has a remarkable offer: he claims to have developed a process that could strip Logan of his immortality and healing powers, transferring them to Yashida and saving his life in the process. He offers Logan the peace of a natural life followed by a natural death.
It’s a shame this otherwise thoughtful film doesn’t give Logan more time to reflect on that offer, but he doesn’t have much time to wrestle with it before he’s thrown into a violent battle for control of the Yashida empire, with his super-healing powers partially neutralized. In the great 1980s graphic novel this film is loosely inspired by, Logan’s time in Japan taught him how to temper his berserker rage with samurai discipline – even with his superhuman powers, he’s no match for the well-trained and tightly controlled master swordsmen of the samurai tradition until he masters their ways and becomes one of history’s greatest warriors. In “The Wolverine,” his character arc is more about learning the value of life through pain and weakness. It is implied that one reason he’s become so listless and without direction after Jean’s death is that he’s both immortal and invincible, which numbs him to the keen edge of danger. His reduced healing powers give him a chance to taste life, and perhaps appreciate the lives of others in a new way. He must rediscover his duty as a champion with the power to protect good people from the fate that can never claim him.
This is pretty deep stuff for a superhero film. “The Wolverine” is longer and talkier than most of them. Logan’s other solo adventure, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” was an interesting idea to make a grindhouse revenge potboiler with superhuman characters, but it misfired due to a surplus of characters and lazy writing. This time, he’s essentially the hero of a Clint Eastwood western, rolling into Tokyo to tangle with outlaws who pack swords and bows instead of six-guns. (Fortunately, the Japanese are good sports about the standard comic-book assumption that 2013 Tokyo is brimming with ninjas and latter-day samurai.)
There are a few missteps, including over-reliance on the dreaded Shaky Cam during some of the action scenes. The mostly Japanese cast is uniformly excellent, but none of the bad guys is a match for Liev Schrieber’s surprisingly awesome scenery-chewing turn as Sabretooth in “X-Men Origins.” There isn’t enough of a personal connection between Wolverine and his foes to provide a satisfying sense of antagonism and catharsis, a problem made worse by the megaton of CGI animation dumped into the final adversary. It seems like a terrible mistake to conclude a deeply personal character-driven adventure by having the hero fight a cartoon. The best action scene in the film, a battle with yakuza knife men atop a speeding bullet train, comes out of nowhere; later, the great build-up to a fanboy fantasy of sheer awesomeness that pits Wolverine against a zillion ninjas tragically fizzles. There appears to be some sort of contractual obligation to include at least one bad mutant in every X-Men film, and the one who gets shoehorned into “The Wolverine” is campy and extraneous. The screenwriters miss some opportunities to punch up the slower scenes with memorable dialogue; a script doctoring from the likes of Joss Whedon from “Avengers” or Shane Black from “Iron Man 3” would have done wonders. The plot relies heavily on one character acting in a manner that seems inconsistent with what we know about him, without much explanation.
But with those drawbacks aside, “The Wolverine” is a fine effort that takes the hero seriously, gives Hugh Jackman a great outing (which he clearly gives a damn about) and finds unexpected room for growth in one of those decades-old, overexposed supermen. Wolverine is a gruff, tormented, sarcastic, and deeply honorable man… and when his anger explodes, he’s absolutely terrifying, because as long as he has a reason to keep moving, he’s unstoppable.