Upper Cut

James Mangold directed two excellent movies in recent years: the biopic of Johnny Cash, Walk The Line, which he also wrote; and the thrilling remake of a classic ‘50’s western, 3:10 To Yuma. The Christian Bale/Russell Crowe film took an above-average western and made it relevant to the millennial movie-goer by shooting it full of adrenalin. Still, one would not expect Mangold to be the choice to helm a superhero sequel, especially when the last two movies featuring the character were sub-par, to be generous.

Bret Ratner’s X-Men 3: The Last Stand was almost the last stand for the whole X-Men franchise. It was both overblown and half-baked. The same could be said for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The dizzying cast of mutants in both films seemed to say that whenever the writers were stuck on what to do next, they’d throw another mutant into the mix and hope it would work. Thankfully, X-Men: First Class captured the feel of the original two movies in the series.

Now Mangold’s The Wolverine has done the same for that character. The writer’s didn’t dismiss the Jean Grey/Phoenix theme of The Last Stand, but instead used it as motivation in a way that makes it possible to appreciate the earlier movie a little (though only a little).

After his showdown with Jean, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has retreated to the northern woods, the natural habitat of wolverines. His dreams are haunted by Jean (Franke Janssen), as well as an incident from earlier in his life.

In 1945, Logan was an Allied POW outside Nagasaki. A week after Hiroshima, another solo B-29 appears in the sky. Knowing what it means, a young Japanese officer releases the prisoners so they can find shelter, including Logan who’s been locked away in a pit. The officer then joins the rest of his commanders to commit seppuku as the bomb drops, but instead he’s grabbed by Logan who throws him into the pit and then uses his body to shield him from the nuclear firestorm.

Logan is tracked down by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a servant of the wealthy industrialist Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who 68 years earlier was the young officer saved by Logan. Yashida’s near death, but he offers Logan a gift – to take away his ability to regenerate so that he can eventually die.

The supporting cast is mostly made up of actors unknown to US audiences. Yamanouchi’s first role was in the Bruce Lee “Green Hornet” TV series in 1966, but since then he’s mostly worked in Japan. Will Yun Lee is probably the best known in North American audiences from roles in Die Another Day, Elektra, and a recurring role on “Hawaii 5-0” but the reaction for the audience will be “I’ve seen him somewhere before.” Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays Yashida’s son Shingen, appeared on “Revenge” and “Lost.” Svetlana Khodchenkova has the role of Yashida’s oncologist, but has worked almost exclusively in Russia prior to this. Her only other English role was in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Both Fukushima and Tao Okamoto (as Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko) are movie novices. (Okamoto is a supermodel in Japan.) The good news is they are all first-rate in their roles, especially Fukushima and Okamoto. It’s refreshing to see a major movie cast actors rather than stars, with the exception of Hugh Jackman, who, of course, is Hugh Jackman. Mangold had worked with Jackman before, though in a completely different setting. Mangold wrote and directed the time-travel romantic comedy “Kate and Leopold” in which Jackman played Leopold.

The script by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable) and Scott Frank (Dead Again, Get Shorty, Minority Report) solves the Superman problem of the Wolverine character by taking away his invulnerability for much of the movie. This time Wolverine can’t simply heal; he knows pain and weakness. They also didn’t go the massive mutant route, limiting other mutant characters to one. That helps keep the action and the story focused. There is one twist that most will see coming from a reel away, but that doesn’t destroy the movie.

Kudos also to Ross Emery for the cinematography that captures modern Japan in all its diversity, from cityscapes to shoreline communities to gardens to mansions.

There is a tag that comes midway through the credits that leads into the next chapter in the X-Men saga, Days of Future Past. The good news is that Bryan Singer will be back in the directing chair for this movie. If he couldn’t have done it, though, a great second choice would have been Mangold, on the basis of this movie.

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