Am I a samurai?
I will not lie: I enjoyed this movie. Perhaps that should be prefaced with the expectation that I was in for a dumb action flick. You know, in the vein of the first stand-alone Wolverine feature from 2009, which wasn't terribly impressive. Imagine my surprise then. Just imagine it.
There are two sides to Wolverine. The first is arguably what makes him popular, but it's also the boring part: that of the wild creature slashing things to ribbons. This is the guy you see on the posters; Hugh Jackman screaming so hard you fear the man's throat will burst. Then there's the angsty side. Logan as the troubled soul, losing everyone around him since he's immortal and his loved ones are not. This feature is 80% the latter, 20% the former. Thank our lord Stan Lee they finally got that right.
Undeniably a big part of the attraction is the couleur locale of past and present Japan. We begin our story with a flashback to Wolverine interred in a camp near Nagasaki. When Fat Man drops, he saves one of the officers, Yashida. In typical Japanese fashion, this man is now eternally indebted to him. In present day, Logan wanders the wilds, trying to block out the memories of Jean Grey, the mutant lady he had to cut down in an earlier film – and his one true love. It then turns out Yashida was a resourceful man: at the end of his life he has built up a business empire and now wants to see Logan one more time to say goodbye before dying. At least, that's the lure. When our hero arrives in Tokyo, he gets caught up in a treacherous game of corporate politics. Who is bequeathed the company? Who is trying to kill the heir apparent?
Miss anything in this picture? Yes, you're right. Mutants. They are virtually absent – blissfully so. It's so much more interesting to see Wolverine in a place where hard hits are not always the answer, where we can see how normal people react to him and how he struggles with his place in society. The film isn't so much your average X-Men fare as it is a business thriller. Less Stan Lee, more John Grisham. And again, the whole thing is better off for it. In fact, the few instances where mutants play a part, it feels wrong and out of place. Notably the villainess of the piece, Viper, doesn't fit well at all in the plot. She's just there as a bone thrown at a specific part of the audience to keep them from screaming murder at the lack of fantastical elements. Truthfully, she should've been scrapped. The Wolverine would have come out even stronger for it.
Another big change? The world is never in peril. Most of the film it isn't clear what's really happening, and when the smoke evaporates the plot is murky and personal. No looming world destruction here, no, something that's a little more interesting. There is a brave reluctance on display to clarify much. Few scenes of exposition hinder the film (one notable, misbegotten exception with Viper immediately dragging the experience down in the middle). As a viewer, you spend most of the time just as lost as Logan at connecting the dots. This noirish take works well with the cultural theme. It's simply Lost in Translation with a superpowered mutant in the lead. I imagine this is how it feels to be in Japan: completely overwhelmed, never sure what's going on, slow to pierce through the mystery.
Yes, there's plenty of goofiness. Some is of the highly enjoyable variety (a splendid fight on top of a train, Logan wondering if he's a samurai, staying the night at a ridiculous love hotel), some less so (tedious one-on-one fights, another tiring science facility brawl for the climax). No one in their right mind expect this to be a serious movie. But for a Wolverine film, where (let's not beat around the bush) the bar isn't set particularly high, this is surprisingly good. It explores the inherent existential crises in the character in a satisfying way. It shows there is a lot of mileage in Wolverine – let's hope this becomes the template on which future superhero movies are built. I cherish few expectations that the next installment won't be another overblown mutant cheesefest instead of a surprising and intimate tale like this, but I'm happy to have those waylaid.