Slapped with the generic title The Wolverine, the fifth feature-length appearance of Hugh Jackman’s X-Man John Logan is basically The Bad News Wolverine Goes to Japan and is not especially world-shaking. Which is actually an agreeable change — we’ve had enough apocalypses for one summer. This is just the latest chapter in an ongoing studio “franchise,” barely different from a forties B-movie Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes installment. Except for the budget and the way it’s going to dominate the week’s cultural conversation and have already quaking studio executives (it has been a difficult summer) checking the grosses by the minute.
Back to the movie, which is directed by James Mangold. In the prologue, it’s 1945, and Logan lies at the bottom of a hole in a Nagasaki prison camp, where he saves a Japanese soldier from the nuclear blast. (Logan himself is burned badly, but, being near-invincible, quickly regenerates.) More than half a century later, the Japanese soldier — now a cancer-ridden mogul — summons Logan to Japan to offer a trade. He will give Logan the life of an ordinary mortal (something the mutant has longed for) in return for the Wolverine’s immortality and indestructibility. Apparently, they can do that now, power-swap. Our hero barely listens to the offer, though. It repulses him. But before he can say sayonara, waves of yakuza and ninjas descend on the mogul’s luxurious compound.
Jackman is now long in the tooth for the ageless Wolverine, but he’s such a focused, disciplined, likable performer that he gets by handsomely — even if the enormous swollen veins in his enormous swollen arms will only be attractive to anesthesiologists. In the movie’s early present-day scenes, he’s living as a hermit and has sworn off superheroics — a decision he reiterates to the ghost of Jean Gray (Famke Janssen), who appears in his dreams. He has many dreams of him and Jean lying in bed, and they’re terrifying. All of a sudden, another extraordinarily beautiful actress has a face like a bar of Ivory Soap.
Wolverine cannot stay peaceable too long. Injustice engorges him. Literally. He swells up, his veins pop, his adamantine claws spring out, and the computer-generated imagery commences. There’s one excellent sequence atop a speeding bullet train, the whole thing obviously happening inside a computer but who cares when it’s so wittily conceived? Wolverine and a yakuza get knocked the length of several cars, drag themselves back with a knife or adamantine talons respectively, and get knocked back again, all while ducking overhead wires and beams going by in a blur. The other good bits feature Wolverine’s new sidekick, a little anime dervish called Yukio (Rila Fukushima) with magenta hair and layered stripey schoolgirl-goes-bananas ensembles. She (and her stunt double) whirls and slices and hacks at speeds that keep your eyeballs (and head and neck) swiveling madly to keep up. Her glee is so electric it conquers gravity.
Apart from a scene that features cinema’s most prodigious (and appalling) bit of self-surgery, the plotting is mechanical, the dialogue barely functional (it’s a surprise to see the witty Scott Frank among the screenwriters), and the other action scenes a hash. The idea of Wolverine fighting off waves of yakuza and ninjas amid shoji screens is tantalizing, but Mangold bungles the staging and cuts so fast that you can’t ever savor their silhouettes. In his 3:10 to Yuma remake, he showed an awareness of how beautiful the old Western archetypes can be, but he has no comparable love for comic-book imagery. The only frames you’ll remember are the ones held the longest — in which Wolverine, determined to save the kidnapped heroine Mariko (Tao Okamoto), staggers toward the villain’s fortress as he’s porcupine'd with poison-dipped arrows. Worse, the villains have no stature. There’s a new Bad Mutant on the scene called Viper, who’s part Mystique, part Lady Terminator, part smirky hardcore porn actress. As played by a misdirected Svetlana Khodchenkova (so good in the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy remake), she’s an embarrassment.
In The Wolverine, Logan is likened to a ronin, a samurai without a master, and the question hangs: Will he ever again find a man like X-Men’s Xavier (Patrick Stewart) to help him channel his anger in the name of a greater good? As usual, the answer comes a minute or so into the final credits in a bit conceived to make the fanboys salivate on cue. I won’t say they’re cheap dates given the budgets of these movies, but they’re awfully susceptible to flattery. Show up at Comic-Con, promise them more Marvel and DC team-ups, tell them they’re the center of the universe, and they’ll line up obediently — tools who fancy themselves ronin.