Monday, August 19, 2013

The Wolverine Marks a Wasted Opportunity

Hugh Jackman is one hugely jacked man. See what I did there?
The Wolverine has done relatively well with critics due to its atypically somber and intimate approach to the superhero genre, but, by and large, the praise is overblown.

The film aspires to be a slow burn, character-focused actioner with a flawed and broken antihero, something along the lines of the underrated George Clooney film The American or even Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. However, while star Hugh Jackman seems game and there’s some interesting themes buried in the narrative, The Wolverine collapses under the weight of nonsensical plot machinations, lackluster development and a silly finale.

The movie opens with a Yeti-looking Wolverine eking out an isolated existence in wilderness of the Yukon, still haunted from being forced to kill ladylove Jean Grey at the conclusion of X-Men: The Last Stand. However, after being tracked down by pixie-cute martial artist Yukio (Rila Fukushima), he quickly finds himself enroute to Japan to bid farewell to Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a Japanese acquaintance he saved from certain death during the bombing of Nagasaki.

When he arrives, Wolverine learns Yashida has become a billionaire industrialist and that, instead of saying goodbye, what he actually wants to do is take Wolverine’s regenerative power, saving his own life while simultaneously granting Wolverine mortality that will eventually lead to the peaceful and honorable death Yashida believes he desires. After Wolverine unexpectedly scoffs at the idea, Yashida dies in the middle of the night.

"Poison Ivy," I mean "Viper," terrorizes Wolverine's girlfriend.
From there, Wolverine gets embroiled in family politics, becoming the protector of Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) who Yashida names as heir to his empire. This revelation causes uproar with Mariko’s father, and ultimately the Yakuza, an ancient clan of ninjas and Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a mysterious mutant who weakens Wolverine’s regenerative capabilities, factor into the plot.

There’s plenty of action, including a standoff on top of a bullet train and a beautifully shot sequence in which Wolverine goes up against numerous arrow wielding ninjas, but the film’s actually more of a drama in which our hero comes to terms with his immortality and learns to love again.

These through lines are strong conceptually, but the film botches them. For Wolverine’s existential crisis to carry weight, the film should’ve devoted more screen time to the development of Wolverine’s friendship with Yashida, perhaps even showing our hero vocalizing the burdens of everlasting life while hiding in a hole after the bombing. A similar criticism could be levied at the film’s romantic relationship. Although Jackman and Okamoto have a nice chemistry, there’s just not enough there, and, from a story perspective, it makes little sense that Wolverine would pull a Casablanca and fly away from the woman he loves, simply stating “I’m a soldier, and I’ve been away to long.”

Apparently, this scene intentionally evokes Akira Kurosawa's
Throne of Blood. That's cool.
However, that nonsensical plot point is nothing compared to the ludicrous (but telegraphed) twist in which viewers discover Yashida faked his own death and took up residence in an adamantium robot, biding his time until he could steal Wolverine’s power by force via drilling into his claws.

Forgetting for a second that the adamantium-heavy plan makes little sense in it’s own right (Wolverine’s actual powers have nothing to do with the adamantium skeleton Stryker grafted onto him), it’s tough to comprehend why Yashida would go through all the trouble of faking his death and putting his granddaughter in harms way when he could simply imprison Wolverine while he’s sleeping under his roof. It also doesn’t make sense why Mariko and Yukio wouldn’t be in on this plan, and why exactly Viper is helping Yashida at all.

Overall, the film plays like a series of artistic compromises, and while some parts are effectively thoughtful, others are mind-numbingly cartoonish.  Given the end result, it’s easy to imagine why original director Darren Aronfsky was attracted to the project, and why he ultimately bailed on it.
In watching The Wolverine, I was reminded of Last Stand, another X-Men film with some interesting ideas that downgraded at director right before production. Although most X-Men fans revile that film, The Wolverine has been embraced as a return to form for the character after two disappointing entries (Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine). However, from where I’m standing, it’s basically the same as Last Stand – a wasted opportunity. C