After six films, four different directors, and a two-year hiatus, the “X-Men” franchise is back…but not exactly better than ever. The quality of the “X-Men” films has varied wildly over the past 13 years, but director James Mangold seems to have put Marvel’s second most valuable property back on track with the entertaining, albeit slightly muddled “The Wolverine.”
After the epic final battle in 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” Logan (Hugh Jackman) returns to Canada, where he drowns his sorrows and, of course, gets into bar fights. His new lifestyle is suddenly interrupted by sword-wielding, mind-reading mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima), whose mysterious boss Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) wants to bring the Wolverine to Tokyo.
Logan, you see, saved the old man’s life during the Nagasaki bombing and, on his deathbed, Yashida wishes to return the favor by offering his mutant friend the chance to become human and live a normal life. Logan turns down the offer, but ends up losing his mutant healing power to the series’ new villain, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).
Logan’s weakness is actually one of the film’s many strengths, and Jackman tackles it with the wit and personality the franchise’s fans have come to know and love. His vulnerability gives the Wolverine character true depth because, for the first time, he has something to lose. Thus, as he tries to protect Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from Yakuza hit men, there is a real dramatic stake.
On top of the physical pain, our hero has to fight constant emotional turmoil. The memory of Jean Gray a.k.a. the Phoenix (Famke Janssen), whom Logan had to kill in “The Last Stand,” still haunts his thoughts and hallucinations, and makes “The Wolverine” even deeper.
Fukushima’s Yukio has the sarcasm and air of mystery to make a perfect foil for Jackman. Their chemistry perfectly complements the exciting and fun fight scenes, which are as varied as a Yakuza attack during a funeral to a battle on top of a bullet train moving 300 miles per hour (easily one of the best scenes in the movie).
This momentum, though, crashes in the third act, as Mark Bomback and Scott Frank’s script devolves into a chaotic mishmash of plot twists. The main villain, Viper, turns out to be incredibly uninteresting and, quite frankly, wholly unimportant. When a giant Samarai robot pops up for some reason, it becomes clear that Mangold found himself with a number of loose ends that were never really introduced in the first place.
In spite of this, “The Wolverine” is a respectable (if uneven) entrant into the decidedly uneven X-Men series; a humanized, sometimes tender superhero flick with enough action to satisfy even the most demanding fans of the genre.
*** ½ out of five