By focusing specifically on Logan's comic book dalliances in Japan, The Wolverine manages to make amends for the deplorable X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Even though the film knits together several different storylines, it does so with tremendous respect. Not once did I ever feel as if characters, plots or action beats were shoe-horned into the film in order to appease a certain demographic or make the film more "marketable".
When the film's original director Darren Aronofsky dropped out, I feared the worst. But James Mangold, who's given us such character-driven films as Girl, Interrupted and Walk the Line, turned out to be an excellent replacement. Regardless of the movie's flaws, you can't write The Wolverine off as your average meat-headed summer blockbuster. Characters have pensive moments and are allowed to converse with one another. Logan experiences a genuine arc of growth. Lingering thematic elements from the comic book which touch on death, immortality, and obligation are all given proper consideration here.
In a gripping prologue we learn how Logan (Hugh Jackman) saved the life of a young Japanese officer named Ichirō Yashida after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Fast forward to the present day and our hero has exiled himself in the Canadian wilderness, still traumatized by the death of his beloved Jean Gray (Famke Janssen). Eventually he's dragged back to civilization by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), chief assistant to the now obscenely-wealthy but terminally-ill Ichirō (Haruhiko Yamanouchi).
At Yukio's behest, Logan travels to Japan to honor the industrialist's dying wish to thank him face-to-face for saving his life back in 1945. Once there, he meets Ichirō's overly-ambitions son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and his devoted grand-daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto). After their meeting, Ichirō offers to transfer Logan's mutant healing factor to him, unnaturally extending the magnate's life while granting Wolverine the option to age, grow old and die like a normal person. Logan refuses, but the choice is soon taken away from him by Ichirō's mysterious physician, the nefarious Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova ).
Ichirō dies that same night and during the subsequent funeral Logan is forced to come to Mariko's aid when she's targeted by Yakuza hitmen. Assisted by the clandestine archery of Mariko's old flame Kenuichio Harada (Will Yun Lee), the pair barely manage to escape. Logan is understandably alarmed when he fails to regenerate from the wounds he sustained during the fight, making him decidedly vulnerable at the worst possible time.
It's soon revealed that Shingen and Mariko's scumbag fiancé Noburo (Brian Tee) had an inside track on Ichirō's plan to will his entire empire to Mariko. With her life now under constant threat, Logan is forced to run a lethal gauntlet to keep her safe from harm. This sets up a final confrontation amongst the major players and serves up a few intriguing revelations about Ichirō, the duplicitous Viper and the enigmatic Silver Samurai.
Comic book fans will be pleased to see that screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank took considerable inspiration from the Chris Claremont / Frank Miller Wolverine mini-series from 1982. Some of these are nods are direct adaptations, such as the "bear hunt" sequence at the start of the film. Others are decidedly more esoteric. For example, when Logan launches himself claws-first towards the camera while fighting atop the bullet train it's highly reminiscent of the cover of Issue Two. And when Wolverine gets turned into a human pincushion, fans can't help but be reminded of several panels contained in Issue Three.
Even though the script is clearly a distillation of several stories, it still boils down to a perfectly autonomous and satisfying yarn. As a died-in-the-wool Wolverine fan, I'm delighted to see characters like Shingen, Yukio, Mariko, Viper and Harada depicted on-screen in the spirit of their four-color predecessors. Most importantly, thematic references to duty, honor and the path of the Ronin have all carried over from the comics reasonably intact.
I'm also delighted that Mangold and his writing team actually bothered to give the characters an occasional reprieve. There are moments of almost sublime tranquility here, particularly when Logan and Mariko steal away to Yashida's house in Nagasaki. The two fugitives are given ample time to get to know one another and their growing mutual attraction doesn't feel forced.
The film-makers also took great pains to ensure that the setting of Japan was more then just exotic window dressing. By shooting on location in New South Wales and Tokyo you actually feel somewhat immersed in the culture. This results in several memorable scenes, such as frantic foot chase through a pachinko parlor and a cheekily comedic sequence in which Logan and Mariko are forced to take refuge in a seedy "love hotel".
Since the movie feels like a gritty crime drama that just so happens to have mutants in it, the action sequences are refreshingly free of convention. There's no flashy visual effects or belief-suspending wire-work, just plenty of good, old-fashioned sword, fisticuff, and claw choreography. In fact, except for the admittedly exhilarating bullet train fight, the obligatory scrap with the Silver Samurai and the needlessly-flashy manifestations of Viper's serpent-like powers, the film is downright low-fi. At first I was worried since the funeral attack is hobbled by micro photography and Ginsu-style editing but mercifully that technique didn't infect the rest of the film.
At this stage in the game, it's difficult to find original ways to praise Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Not only is he physically perfect and inhumanly committed to portraying this role, he also has the acting chops to pull off tortured, pissed-off, protective, berserk, conciliatory and emotionally tortured all in quick succession. Even though Jackman is starting to get a little long in the tooth to play a mutant that never ages, I pity any actor who has to follow him up. I fear that they'll quickly be relegated to "George Lazenby" status.
Hiroyuki Sanada inexplicably gets second billing as Mariko's dad Shingen Yashida. Don't get me wrong, his performance is fine, exhibiting restrained understatement one minute and feral rage the next. But he doesn't get a lot of screen time and as a generic heavy, he's shockingly underwritten. In fact, if the film has any major flaw it's that Logan doesn't have an equally-dominant and consistent protagonist to butt heads against. At least he gets to shine during a hair-raising sword fight with a reconstituted Wolverine half-way through the film.
With her dignified bearing and gentle demeanor, Tao Okamoto does a fine job replicating Mariko's early comic book characterization as a lilting flower. But this is 2013, so thankfully Mariko doesn't blithely accept her role as professional victim here. Yes, her primary function in the script is to act as a contested prize but at least she also puts up some convincing resistance. I also like how a casual reference to her knife-wielding skills pays off nicely in the end. Despite the sixteen-year difference between her and Jackman, their chemistry is convincing and I had no problem buying their mutual attraction.
We also get a few good showings from the supporting cast. Despite his character's cloudy motivations, Will Yun Lee is earnest and intense as Harada. Famke Janssen puts in a welcome appearance as Jean Grey, haunting Logan's conscience whilst providing continuity between The Wolverine and previous X-Films. Finally, Svetlana Khodchenkova really gets her grove-on as Viper. It's almost as if she realized that her character was the only outwardly-evil presence in the film so she decided to go for broke and nibble on the scenery a little bit.
But it's Rila Fukushima who really shines as Yukio. Winsome, accomplished, mischievous and not to be trifled with, in many ways she's a much better match for Wolverine then Mariko. In re-casting her as Wolverine's sidekick/guardian angel she's a bit too heroic and noble as written. In the comics, she's a cold-blooded killer who poses an interesting love triangle for Logan. Does he settle for Yukio, who'll take him as he is or does he strive for self-improvement in order to win the affections of the honorable and refined Mariko? Sadly this angle is barely explored, but that's not a slight against Fukushima, who lights up the screen whenever she's present.