In the midst of the current glut of cinematic super-hero adventures, James Mangold's take on the mutant immortal from the X-Men series is refreshingly old-fashioned in its presentation as a sort of low-key thriller with hints of film noir existentialism and a minimum of super-powers - at least until the requisite blow-out finale. This should not be surprising, seeing that: a) Mr. Mangold has shown he can bring a modicum of personality to major-studio projects (his Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz spy comic Knight & Day remains one of the most solid and underrated attempts at a tongue-in-cheek action fest), and: b) he had nowhere to go but up after the disappointing initial solo outing for the Wolverine in Gavin Hood's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, especially with star Hugh Jackman raring for a second, better go at the character that turned him into a film star.

     For most of its well-paced length, The Wolverine is a much better film than its predecessor; it's also a welcome return to the original tone, darker and more adult, Bryan Singer brought to his two X-Men films. And, more surprisingly, it's mostly a no-nonsense mystery-thriller reminding of that genre's 1960s/1970s B-movie heyday, as Mr. Jackman's Logan is presented as a loner struggling to make sure justice is served on those who deserve it, haunted by the memories of the woman he loved and lost because of it (Famke Janssen as fellow X-woman Jean Grey). Set in Japan, reminding of both Alan Pakula's The Yakuza and Ridley Scott's Black Rain, the plot has Logan called to Tokyo by Yashida (Hiruhiko Yamanouchi); a man he saved from death in Nagasaki at the tail end of WWII, and now one of the most powerful tycoons in Japan, who, on his deathbed, entices him with the possibility of becoming a mortal.

     The realization by Logan of immortality as a curse rather than as a blessing is the central premise from which the script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank spins out, and it remains in play throughout as Logan becomes an unplanned bodyguard to Yashida's grand-daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who is being sought out by the Yakuza (and other unnamed folk) for reasons connected with conflicting interests in the Yashida assets. This Bodyguard-like rapprochement between Logan and Mariko underlines even more The Wolverine's debts to a more classic thriller framework, coloured by some discreet exotica (Will Yun Lee's secret ninja squad, Rila Fukushima's anime-like tough sidekick) while allowing Mr. Jackman to be the only Western actor in a mainly Japanese cast. The mere fact that the film's blueprint seems to be the 1970s action-thriller is enough to set The Wolverine apart of most contemporary super-hero films, despite a mid-point sugar-rush fight atop a bullet train that stretches credibility but, importantly, never breaks it.

     Until, that is, the by-now compulsory special-effects extravaganza that passes for a finale shows up, breaking the film's rhythm and wrapping up awkwardly some of the plot's loose ends (namely those involving Yoshida's suspicious physician). It's a sad reminder that, for all the elegant, solid scaffolding that Mr Mangold erects for Mr. Jackman to delve deeper into his character, looking at him both as an action hero and as a man with troubles and emotions of his own, there will always be compromises to be made with the requirements of a big franchise, and ones that don't necessarily benefit the end result. The Wolverine may be a better film than the previous solo outing for the character, but for all its good things it remains tantalizingly beneath what could have been.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Hiruhiko Yamanouchi, Brian Tee
Director: James Mangold
Screenplay: Mark Bomback, Scott Frank
Cinematography: Ross Emery  (colour, widescreen)
Music: Marco Beltrami
Designer: François Audouy
Costumes: Isis Mussenden
Editor: Michael McCusker
Visual effects: Philip Brennan
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, Hutch Parker, John Palermo (Twentieth Century-Fox, The Donners Company and John Palermo Productions in association with Marvel Entertainment, TSG Entertainment, Ingenious Media and Big Screen Productions)
USA/United Kingdom, 2013, 126 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 6, Lisbon, July 22nd 2013


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