‘The Wolverine’ Suffers From A Distinct Lack Of Ninja Killing [Review]
You know, I really expected Wolverine to kill more ninjas.
That's not being unrealistic, is it? I mean, when you hear that there's going to be a Wolverine movie based, however loosely, on the 1982 Wolverine miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, you go into the theater expecting a few things to happen. I wasn't really looking for a specific number or anything, but if you'd asked me going in, I would've told you that my most important expectation for this movie was that Wolverine was going to kill a number of ninjas that was greater than zero. when the ninjas actually do show up about 20 minutes before the end, I figured it was finally time to pay off, but nope. Never happened. In that respect, I'm sorry to tell you that The Wolverine did not meet my expectations. [Spoilers ahead]
In a lot of ways, I really wish that they'd just done a straight up adaptation of that miniseries, right down to setting it in a moody, neon-lit, crime-riddled Frank Miller version of the '80s. I realize that's a pretty weird thing to want to see out of a summer blockbuster, but it actually seems pretty logical when you think about the success of Marvel's other period pieces like Captain America: The First Avenger, X-Men: First Class, and even X-Men Origins: Wolverine's nebulous setting of "the past." If it had been, I think a lot of the movie's rougher bits might've been smoothed out in the name of creating a genre pastiche, particularly the hour where it's basically a generic action movie where the hero just happens to have a pair of goofy mutton chops. But instead, they went pretty loose with the "adaptation," and the result is a movie that's about as uneven as Hugh Jackman's haircut.
The major problem of The Wolverine -- and one of the biggest surprises for me going in -- is that it's a direct sequel to X-Men 3: The Last Stand. When First Class came out a few years ago, I was pretty sure that we were all just going to go ahead and forget X-Men 3 ever happened, but instead, this movie doubles down and picks up right where that one left off. There's a part of me that really respects that James Mangold chose to do it that way, trying to build something good by salvaging a failure rather than just ignoring it in favor of starting over. That is, after all, what comics have to do all the time, and while modern action movies are pretty new to the kind of shared-universe continuity that Wolverine has his roots in, it's nice to see them trying to use it, even if it doesn't quite work. On the other hand, it's impossible not to admit that in doing so, Mangold ground this movie to a halt with every attempt. As much as I liked seeing Famke Janssen return as Jean Grey, getting her as a weird little death wish hallucination that Wolverine could mope around about every every fifteen minutes tied an anchor to the whole thing.
Structurally speaking, that's The Wolverine's biggest problem: It's so slow. For a movie that doesn't have to waste any time explaining who its main character is because it's the sixth movie in a franchise, and the fifth that's pretty much entirely about this one dude, it takes forever to actually get to anything exciting. It essentially opens with Wolverine as a hobo -- you know, long beard, lives in a cave, listens to terrestrial radio -- forsaking violence because he had to kill Phoenix. There's a glimmer of action pretty early with some hunters that, aside from Hugh Jackman's kind-of-hilarious Alan Moore cosplay, could've come straight out of the comics, but after that, it feels like an hour of grinding exposition and plot setup before we start getting anywhere.
And even when the action does start, it's still pretty painfully boring. Our first big set piece is a fight between Wolverine and some generic Yakuza bros on the roof of a bullet train, and while that sounds like it should be exciting, it really isn't. It's a complete snooze, partly because it looks so fake, and partly because even after all the plodding that it does to get there, there's no real reason to actually care about any of it. It's just a generic fight scene in a generic action movie where the American (well, Canadian) tough guy goes to Japan and has to deal with family intrigue and strange ideas about dishonoring one's family and generic mobs of unnamed bad guys. I've seen the first hour of The Wolverine a hundred times on VHS, and it doesn't really work a lot better if you staple a set of claws onto the hero.
It's tempting to pin the blame for the achingly slow first act on the idea of Wolverine losing his healing factor, but while Jackman definitely has to spend a whole lot of time looking confused at bloodstains and dealing with the repressed memories of being in a Brett Ratner movie, that's not really the problem. In fact, the idea behind it is actually something that I like, if only because it's something we haven't already seen in the other four movies.
And that leads to the movie's greatest strength: The Wolverine, for all its faults, does try to show us things we haven't seen before, and it succeeds. There are surprises and shocks and a pretty cool climax, it just takes about an hour and a half to actually get there.
When it does, though, when The Wolverine stops being a generic action movie and remembers that it's about a dude with knives on his fist that spends most of his time trying to stab a floating Holocaust survivor, it really picks up. There are bits and pieces of fun scattered in the first act, but at the end, when Viper and Yukio are battling to the death and Wolverine is literally having a sword fight with a guy who is exactly the samurai version of Jeff Bridges from Iron Man and realizes that he can only set his magic adamantium sword on fire if he holds it in two hands and believes in himself or whatever? It's a friggin' hoot.
I mean, don't get me wrong, it doesn't make a lot of sense. I can definitely meet you halfway on this stuff, and if you tell me that Wolverine's healing factor lives in his bone marrow and that it will immediately make you young and immortal upon exposure to it, and that this can be done by using drills that Japanese Obadiah Stane kept in the gauntlets of his robot armor for just such an occasion, I am more than willing to accept that. It's that the bad guys seem to have three completely different plots going on that they never really cleared with each other, which leads to the gang that wants Wolverine (and his magic bone marrow) alive taking away his healing factor (which they want him to have so they can take it away later), thus making him vulnerable to the people that are trying to kill him.
In the end, it's kind of a mess -- albeit a mess that turns pretty fun at the end, complete with a "here we go again" post-credits sequence. It's on par with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, only more boring. And really, that's a shame. The character's better than the movies, and the cast -- particularly Jackman, who's 14 years into this whole Wolverine business and plays him with the same effortless charm we've come to expect -- deserves a whole lot better.