BY VAN ROBERTS
Let me say up front without apology that “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” qualified as a fantastic piece of formulaic fodder. Before I saw director James Mangold’s “The Wolverine,” I watched “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” again and wondered how anybody could top such a tour-de-force tale. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” boasted everything that a blockbuster movie requires: charismatic heroes, wicked villains both human and mutant, larger-than-life spectacle, tearful romance, treacherous betrayal, and histrionic revenge. During its first weekend, this Marvel mutant masterpiece coined over $85 million. Ultimately, it grossed $373 million globally. Comparatively, “The Wolverine” raked in only $55 million during its first weekend. Analysts had predicted $70 million. Not surprisingly, “The Wolverine” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) isn’t half as entertaining as the incomparable “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.”
Although James Mangold is a gifted director, “The Wolverine” ranks below his other epics. He directed the brilliant Johnny Cash & June Carter biopic “I Walk the Line,” the complex Sylvester Stallone crime drama “Copland,” the gritty western remake “3:10 to Yuma” with Russell Crowe & Christian Bale, the aggressive Tom Cruise actioneer “Knight and Day,” and the critically acclaimed chick flick “Girl, Interrupted.” Mangold isn’t a high-profile, Oscar winning, celebrity director whose name sells tickets like Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron. Capable and competent, Mangold has proven to be only as good as his material. This above-average but uneven Twentieth Century Fox release suffers from undistinguished villains and a storyline that stalls out several times during its indulgent 129-minute running time. Mangold excels when depicting the Wolverine’s woes. Unfortunately, scenarists Mark Bomback of “Unstoppable” and Scott Frank of “Minority Report” have concocted a pedestrian yarn that doesn’t broaden our knowledge of the protagonist.
Ostensibly, Bomback and Frank adapted Marvel’s limited-run “Wolverine” series written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller back in 1982. Apparently, neither Bomback nor Frank fretted about fidelity to the source material. They’ve altered several things for the worst, including Logan’s reason for visiting Japan. Basically, “The Wolverine” is a sequel to “X-Men: The Last Stand,” not “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” The early part of the film differs from the limited series graphic novel. First, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen of “GoldenEye”) invades Logan’s dreams. (If you’re hoping Jean will play an integral role in “The Wolverine,” prepare to be disappointed. She appears, vanishes, reappears, and then keeps on annoying Logan one time too often. The “Wolverine” limited run series contained a reference to Jean Grey, but Scott ‘Cyclops’ Summers worried more about her than Logan. Second, Wolverine is camping in the woods and grieving over Jean’s death when he encounters a huge grizzly bear. Later, a hunter shoots this bear with a poisonous arrow but the bear doesn’t die. In the comic, Wolverine plunges into the bear’s den to kill it after it has slain several people. In “The Wolverine,” he finds the poor bear and puts it out of its misery before heading off to confront the hunter. Third, unlike Bomback and Frank, Claremont and Miller didn’t knit World War II, Nagasaki, and Wolverine’s saving an enemy officer into their narrative.
“The Wolverine” unfolds on August 9, 1945, when the atomic bomb struck Nagasaki. Across the bay from the city, the Japanese military maintain a prison camp. The Wolverine, Logan (Hugh Jackman with his signature mutton chops), is sweating it out in solitary confinement when the atomic bomb falls. (In “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” Logan participated in the American Civil War, World War I, World War II in Europe, and The Vietnam War. Evidently, our hero must have been re-deployed to the Pacific after he helped vanquish the Nazis in Europe.) Anyhow, Logan saves Japanese prison camp officer, Yashida (Ken Yamamura), after his three superiors commit ritual suicide. Miraculously, Yashida and Wolverine survive the historic blast. The Wolverine looks like a scorched pepperoni pizza. Our hero’s regenerative powers, however, enable him to heal completely without a scratch. Yashida escaped certain death through the Wolverine’s intervention. The prison camp officer emerges with a facial scar as a testament to his presence at the blast.
In “The Wolverine,” the 68-year old Yashida refuses to succumb to death. He has a doctor, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkov), who keeps tabs on his health. The affluent Yashida is the CEO of a lucrative, global, electronics empire. He dispatches his daughter’s friend to find the Wolverine. The agile, pink-haired, sword-wielding Yukio (Rila Fukushima) tracks him down to a bar in Canada as he is poised to eviscerate the bear hunter. Yukio convinces Logan to fly with her to Japan to see Yashida. Meantime, the comic took a different path. After he deals with the hunter in the bar, Wolverine winged his way to Japan because his girlfriend Mariko had stopped talking to him. When he arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun, Wolverine discovered that Mariko wanted nothing to do with him. Mariko’s gangster father Lord Shingen has come back into her life. Moreover, Shingen has forced her to marry another man so he can dominate the Japanese Underworld. At this point, Wolverine found himself up to his ears in Yakuza.
Hugh Jackman reprises his role as the tortured but sympathetic Logan for the sixth time. The Wolverine is the only fully developed character in this mundane melodrama. Meantime, the villainous Yashida emerges as a lackluster adversary who only wants to acquire Logan’s ability to withstand the effects of aging. In the long run, the beautiful but bland Viper does little more than deceive Logan. In the limited run series, all the X-Men showed up for our hero’s triumphant return. Apart from one other character, Logan is the only mutant. Mangold and company make their worse mistake when they pit Logan against well-armed humans who don’t have a chance in combat. Mercifully, nothing is easy for our hero who comes full circle by fade-out. The best scene occurs after the end credits of this half-baked hokum. Despite its slick production values, the anti-climatic “Wolverine” comes up short as a seminal superhero saga.