The first X-Men movie opened on July 14, 2000. A child born early that year will have just turned 17 by the time the tenth entry in the series, Logan, hits theaters next month. That is fortunate — viewers are going to need a driver’s license to get into this movie, which possesses the hardest R rating of any American superhero movie in history. In the past, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine would swing his razor-sharp adamantium claws and bad guys would simply fall to the ground. There was never any visible evidence of his brutality. There’s more graphic violence in Logan’s first scene — severed limbs, gruesome disembowlings — than in all of the other of the Wolverine and X-Men movies combined.

The savagery is not simply gore for gore’s sake; it’s a crucial part of Logan’s themes about the mental and emotional toll all that violence takes on the man who inflicts it. If killing people was clean and easy, it wouldn’t leave such a stain on this broken hero’s soul. The Logan we meet in this film — which is set in the year 2029 after most of mutantkind has mysteriously died — is a disillusioned alcoholic who’s long since abandoned any notion of selflessness. As the story begins, he works as a limo driver in El Paso, shepherding obnoxious bachelorette parties to local clubs. He’s saving money to buy a boat, where he plans to live out his remaining days (and given the way he’s coughing and limping, there may not be many of them left) with his old friend and mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose telepathic mutant brain has become a weapon of mass destruction as a result of a degenerative disease.

So when a woman (Elizabeth Rodriguez) confronts him with a quiet but fierce-looking child (newcomer Dafne Keen) and begs for his help, he tells her to get lost (and he doesn’t say it that politely, either). Some men are looking for them, she says; sure enough, Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a suave but menacing dude with a metallic hand, soon barges into Logan’s limo asking all kinds of questions. Despite his pleas to be left alone, Logan is swiftly drawn back into action to protect Xavier and the girl, who turns out to have a surprising connection to the feral mutant.

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Even if its protagonist’s return to heroism is inevitable, these are the strongest scenes in the movie, and the finest work Jackman has ever done as this character. Wolverine has always been a sad figure, but the passage of time has given his Logan’s suffering even more melancholic weight. In some ways, the character’s magical regenerative abilities have always worked against him onscreen; it’s hard to get nervous about the fate of a character who can’t be killed. Logan’s Wolverine is legitimately fragile, and that gives the film a tension that its predecessors lacked.

Jackman’s rapport with Stewart’s borderline unhinged Xavier is terrific, too. Some of their scenes, like the ones in an empty water tank full of implied meaning about the state of the X-franchise, are tragic. Others, like the ones where Xavier cheerfully welcomes the little girl to their secret Mexican hideout, offer the few notes of lightness in an otherwise very dark picture. And Stewart, whose Xavier was always limited to the same handful of stern emotional notes, seems to relish the opportunity to loosen up a little.

Director and co-writer James Mangold, who also made 2013’s The Wolverine, does a nice job of crafting a near-future that’s believably depressing without looking cartoonishly grim. He also spends a lot of time examining the state of X-Men movies (and really all of superhero cinema) in 2017. A couple of old X-Men comics play a crucial role in the plot, and in one scene Jackman pointedly calls them “ice cream for bedwetters.” Later, though, the comics prove valuable, suggesting there may still be a place for them in our world, provided their stories are handled with the level of care given to Logan.

Mangold generally only makes two kinds of movies: Actual Westerns and secret Westerns disguised as other genres. (See his cop Western Copland, or the musical Western Walk the Line, or the samurai Western The Wolverine.) Logan might be his most overtly Western non-Western yet, from its dusty, sand-blasted locales to the moment when Xavier and the little girl, whose name is Laura, watch the climactic scene from George Stevens’ Shane in a hotel room.

It’s already clear by that point that Mangold’s Logan is a spiritual descendant of Alan Ladd’s Shane, but the film keeps piling on the references and homages until it seems like he doesn’t trust his audience to catch the drift. It’s clever to have Logan and Laura make a getaway in an old Ford Bronco; it’s kind of ridiculous when the heroes stumble upon a family of farmers with their horse trailer, then go back to the farm where the son’s room is full of horse pictures and horse drawings and trophies for horse roping competitions while Laura is wearing a sweatshirt with a horse on it. We get it, dude; it’s a Western.

20th Century Fox

Those scenes at the farm heighten the Shane vibes even further (and Eriq La Salle does a nice job in his role as the patriarch of this future frontier family), and it seems like the perfect setting for a final conflict. One ensues, but then the movie continues from there, rambling for a while before it arrives at another big battle scene which feels a little superfluous and very convenient. (On the plus side, if you’re a fan of watching Hugh Jackman fall asleep, this part of Logan is basically your Citizen Kane.)

Holbrook anchors the first half of the film with his sleazy charm, but then he’s relegated to the background in favor of a generic mad scientist (Richard E. Grant) whose schemes morph Logan into a bit of an X-Men Origins: Wolverine rehash, in which shadowy government agencies experiment on mutants and then unleash their “ultimate weapon” on an outmatched Logan. Admittedly, Logan’s version of this scenario is way better than X-Men Origins’, but it still feels much less fresh and original than the movie’s superior first and second acts.

Logan’s momentum definitely flags towards the end, but there are some nice touches in the finale as well (including a final shot that is absolutely perfect). There have been some R-rated superhero movies over the years, but Logan might be the first that doesn’t simply use an adult rating to drown the viewer in “adult content”; it’s a mature consideration of the ideas underpinning its comic-book motifs. It’s also easily the best Wolverine movie of the three, and an impressive sendoff for Jackman’s version of the character. Don’t be surprised if fans begin quoting the end of Shane too, crying “Come back Hugh!” as he rides off into the sunset. It’s hard to blame them. For 17 years, he was the best there was at what he did. 


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