James Stewart stars as a railroad man hired to secretly carry a payroll despite his suspected connections to outlaws
Erstwhile X-Man Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is struggling with existential woes and the trauma of killing the love of his life, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), when a figure from the past plucks him out of isolation and jets him off to Japan to offer him the chance of a lifetime: mortality.
How do you solve a problem like the Wolverine? After stealing the show in three consecutive X-Men features, the grizzled hero made the jump to centre stage in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a misconceived back-story dump that effectively knocked the franchise off course until Matthew Vaughn took the super-powered mutants back to the 1960s in 2011's X-Men: First Class. It seemed that this roguish loner, a star-making role for Hugh Jackman, was the X-Men's own Jack Sparrow or, more accurately, Han Solo - a scruffy-looking nerf herder who brought some much-needed swagger to an earnest ensemble, but, for all his snarky posturing, didn't have the depth required to carry a film himself.
Here, director James Mangold's (Knight And Day) solution is to push the reset button, take the character out of cinematic continuity and start afresh with the definitively-titled The Wolverine. He's still the Logan you know and love - claws, adamantium skeleton, superhuman healing, gruff voice, no-nonsense attitude and all - but now he's sequestered in a cave in deepest, darkest Canada, haunted by the ghost of his lost love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, the only nod to previously-established X-canon). However, soon enough, he's whisked away to Japan to meet a terminally-ill billionaire who, years before, he'd saved from the atomic bomb attack in Nagasaki.
And, for a time, this pseudo-reboot seems to work. Shorn of canonical baggage, this side-mission takes a slightly different form to most cookie-cutter superhero flicks, as Mangold and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Scott Frank and Christopher McQuarrie throw Wolverine into a down-to-earth, street-level plot that, more than anything, resembles an Orientalist noir, with our hero cast as the baffled gaijin tussling with archaic honour codes, corrupt politicians with mob connections, and mysterious, back-stabbing baddies who lurk around every corner.
It's also a dizzying game of Japanese cultural stereotype bingo, as in the space of an hour Mangold crams in samurai, ninjas, yakuza, bullet trains, pachinko parlours, chopsticks etiquette and seppuku. There's even a moment where Logan and his charge, the heiress to the billionaire's fortune, must shack up in a love hotel (specifically in the 'Mission To Mars' room) - at which point the action threatens to boil over into an old-fashioned screwball comedy in the vein of The 39 Steps and It Happened One Night.
But the Wolverine Problem soon comes out to play. The hints are there throughout, from the reliance on age-old super-tropes such as a power-sapping Something Or Other that effectively acts as Wolverine's Kryptonite, to the character's rather dull existential turmoil, which recalls a vampire narrative in his quest for a purpose to carry him through his immortal life. However, if Mangold and Jackman have attempted with The Wolverine to present a more thoughtful take on the character, a daft final act full of contrived plotting, unclear character motivations and an over-the-top scrap that pits Logan against a massive, robotic samurai with a flaming adamantium sword goes a long way toward reinstating the status quo.
At first, this Japanese vacation looks like a smart, entertaining diversion for the X-Men franchise, but Wolverine soon proves - once again - to be a less than superhuman protagonist when taken out of an ensemble context.
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