Film Review: The Wolverine

Wolverine loses his superpowers while protecting an heiress from assassins in Tokyo. Superior Marvel outing could break this summer's blockbuster jinx.

Fans who remember Wolverine's previous solo outing—2009's ghastly X-Men Origins: Wolverine—may be skeptical about The Wolverine. But thanks to an involving script, focused direction and a powerhouse performance by Hugh Jackman, this new entry could win over a wide audience. The Wolverine isn't a run-of-the-mill, effects-heavy comic-book adaptation—it's a solid drama that's only incidentally about superheroes. Getting viewers to realize that may be Fox's biggest marketing challenge.

The script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank reworks a storyline from 1982 by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. The original placed Wolverine in the middle of corporate, Yakuza and family feuds over a business empire in Tokyo. The Asian setting suits the superhero, who's referred to as a "ronin" at one point, and will help the film's overseas box office.

A long, dark, low-key opening brings Wolverine from the wilds of Alaska to Tokyo's teeming neon nightscape. A key figure in the journey is Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an anime cartoon brought to life. Tiny but formidable, with bee-stung lips and bright red hair, Yukio introduces Wolverine to the warring members of the Yashida clan.

The elderly Yashida (Will Yun Lee), a survivor of the Nagasaki A-bomb (shown in a vivid flashback), clings to life thanks to the ministrations of an oncologist known as Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova). His son (Hiroyuki Sanada) is involved with Yakuza gangsters and corrupt politicians, one of whom is betrothed to granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto).

Director James Mangold plays these scenes as if they were part of a moody film noir like Out of the Past or The Big Sleep. Throw in Wolverine's guilt over the loss of his love Jean Gray (Famke Janssen, who shows up in flashbacks), his reluctance to interfere in a complicated business crime, and a list of villains that keeps growing, and you have the makings of a gripping thriller.

The film explodes into action during a funeral that features gangsters, ninjas, and Wolverine's shocking realization that he has become mortal. Using tight camerawork and editing that bring viewers right into the action, Mangold and his crew propel the movie forward while juggling a handful of plotlines, introducing new characters, and dragging Wolverine into a kidnapping scheme that spills into the streets of Tokyo and onto a bullet train for one of the more satisfying fights of the year.

From there the movie travels forwards and backwards in time, with Wolverine never quite sure of his allegiances, or his powers. While the story remains intriguing, the subsequent action scenes never quite live up to the funeral chase. And with a disappointing "Silver Samurai" at the climax, the movie suddenly looks like every other big-budget bust this summer.

Jackman, making his sixth appearance as Wolverine, does an outstanding job playing up his character's physical menace. He's also effective in the moodier moments, where he receives excellent support from Janssen. Okamoto and Fukushima both make strong impressions in a cast that brings considerable depth to the story.

The closing credits include a teaser scene for the next X-Men entry. Let's hope it matches up to the work here.