Skip to main content

A lot of people have tried to kill me, and I'm still here.


The Wolverine
(2013)

How does a script regularly cited as among the best, if not the best, the superhero genre had to offer end up as a movie so… run-of-the-mill? The answer must, in no small part, lie with director James Mangold. The Wolverine was to have be a Darren Aronofosky film, written by Christopher McQuarrie. The brainsmith who directed The Fountain teaming with the writer of The Usual Suspects. It was a fresh and enticing proposition, particularly if it reinvigorated a character who had already spent a decade on the big screen and whose prior solo outing had been savagely mauled by critics, fans and audiences alike.


Predictably, an arthouse sensibility melded to a superhero franchise ended up stalling. Aronofosky cited the lengthy production period in Japan, away from his family, but who knows if real cause wasn’t the notoriously creatively-challenged Fox was pushing for something more safe and pedestrian. And Mangold is about the safest pair of hands you can find. He doesn’t have a terrible film on his resume but neither does he have a great one. He’s an above par journeyman, and since the X-Men franchise flourished under just such a non-auteur (Bryan Singer), his engagment makes a lot of sense. This isn’t a series striving to deliver the best of the best in comic book movies (whatever Hugh Jackman’s aspirations for his character may be); Fox just needs to make enough money to keep the series viable and ensure the rights don’t revert to Disney/Marvel.


I am a bit disappointed; not overly so as my expectations for the series over the course of six films have fluctuated. But I though First Class was wonderful, right up there with the very best of its genre. Most of that was down to Matthew Vaughn, who for whatever reason (did he want Bond, did he want Star Wars? He ended up getting The Secret Service, which doesn’t fill me with anticipation) absconded from the forthcoming Days of Future Past, so the series looks set to remain agreeably unremarkable. But better than that rocky patch when Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood had a bash.


Given the buzz surrounding the script, perhaps it was inevitable that Mangold would come in and decided it needed tuning to his own unique sensibility, to prove he’s nobody’s gun-for-hire (that’s how ego works, isn’t it?) So in came Mark Bomback (the Total Recall remake!) and Scott Frank (some very good scripts, to be fair) to rework it. I can just about understand the decision not to make it another prequel (they suck); less so the apparent dilution of any elements that would have made it stand out. We end up with copious villains, far more than the plot needs, set pieces shoehorned in because you should never be far from a grand action beat, and a banal love interest; because isn’t that how it works?


In all fairness, the movie is thrilling and intriguing for the first hour. Jackman’s Logan answers a summons from the dying Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), whom he saved many years before. The carrot of a normal, mortal life is dangled before Wolverine, just as he becomes aware of conflicts within Yashida’s business empire. So Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) is entirely mercenary, and has arranged marriage between his daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto, who looks a little like a Japanese Jennifer Connolly but with even less presence) and the Justice Minister, Noburo (Brian Tee). When Mariko’s life is threatened, she and Wolverine go on the run. It’s at about this point that the latter discovers his healing abilities aren’t what they once were.


There’s a fairly neat dividing line in terms of quality; thumbs up until, and including, the set piece atop a bullet train (crazy, but breathlessly thrilling). I’ll even include Wolvie’s slightly surprising affinity for a poorly special effects bear in the good stuff, since it leads to a jolly decent bar scene. Then, as flight shifts to romancing the insipid Mariko, lethargy sets into both the drama and the viewer’s eyelids. Maybe with a different actress or a different director the love plot wouldn't come across as standard filler, but Okamoto has absolutely no presence and her character is thin as they come. The scenes where she and Logan hang about at her cabin are banal. Wolverine helps chop up a log fallen across the road, just to illustrate what we already know (he gets tired!) and happen across the well he hid in 70 years ago (well fancy that!) 


Instead of a storyline that uncovers new facets of the character, or pushes him in directions we haven’t seen before, Wolverine is given a somewhat dopey stew of corporate intrigue to sift through (not all that intriguing as it turns out, with a signposted twist; Iron Man Three, which this has a couple of thematic links to, made business world villainy much more involving) and has a fling with a standard Bond girl. There’s zero passion here, and even less motivation; the effect is to standardise Wolverine. He becomes just like any other protagonist. Sure, he gets a bit temperamental at times and has some pointy claws but it’s nothing to get worked up about. He has a fling with Mariko because she’s there, not because he’s captivated with her; yeah, he’s really exuding that Ronin thing. Indeed, the only aspect that stands out is his version of 007’s Tracy (Bond’s one great love) is haunting his dreams. It’s not really a spoiler, since she appears in the trailers, but the return of Famke Jansen as Jean Grey is well judged, even if it’s entirely unnecessary (and serves to accentuate how wet his current emotional entanglement is). Bond may not have been consciously on Mangold’s mind for the love interest (who wants to admit to engineering a shallow romance?) but elsewhere he directly quotes the series; the Diamonds are Forever swimming pool scene, anyone?


The Bond comparisons don’t end there; Wolverine may be sampling Japanese culture, but the setting has no more substance than your average globetrotting 007 tourist destination. The terrain isn’t negotiated as shamelessly as in The Last Samurai, but every cliché and stereotype is present and correct; yakuza, hara-kiri, samurais, technological virtuosity (Yashida’s firm not only delivers cutting edge science, but everyone wanders around in traditional garb; it’s every westerner’s dream of the country!) Nevertheless, the WWII prologue is thrilling even if it's an over-obvious reference point. Flirting with major historical tragedies can seem rather bad taste, but X-Men has taken in concentration camps so why not Hiroshima? The problem is throughout that, while the film has muscle, it has no dramatic weight. When Wolverine is called a Ronin, the reference is as superficial as any western movie take on the Land of the Rising Sun; conjuring the word doesn’t make it so. Jackman is straining his hardest but the results that are merely aesthetically more pleasing than his Origins; they’re not the giant leap they needed to be.


The aspect of the movie that seemed most rote at first glance turns out to work surprisingly well. As far back as Superman II, depriving the hero of his powers has been used as a means of reintroducing threat to an unstoppable force. More recently we saw it in Spider-man 2. Earlier this summer Tony Stark had to make do without his suit for an entire act. So I expected Wolverine’s inability to heal would be a desperate retread of this standard superhero trope, one that would cast a weary shadow over the entire movie. Unlike Shane Black, Bomback and Frank don’t have anywhere really interesting to take their steadily bleeding hero, and there is a point where you start thinking “Enough already!” But the choice does up the stakes a bit, and by opting to merely slow him down rather than make him fully mortal they pull back from a taking the pedestrian route. It still feels too familiar, though; anything that made this different in the first place has been committee-managed back into conformity.  And on a nit-picking level, I’m not clear why Wolverine’s knuckles don’t turn to a bloody pulp whenever he gets his claws out. Shouldn’t they take just as long to heal as his bullet wounds?


As mentioned there are too many bad guys; you don’t need five villains if you can make just one compelling. In two instances the willingness of the bad guys to do anything to reach their goal doesn’t compute given who they're willing to sacrifice; they do these things just because evil types shoud behave that way (come the climax even one of the protagonists is at it, laying down some ultra-violence without the bat of an eye – and you’re left asking why the writers thought they could get away with it). There's another character that flip-flops all over the good-but-misguided line and ends up being used in a "tedious antagonist one moment, hero the next" manner.


What might have been taut and streamlined becomes too much, which sums up the third act. Wolverine has to battle a standard CGI baddie because that’s what you have to do in third acts. If the love story started to unravel a promising tale, the big fight finishes things off. It’s been devised on autopilot, even with a late stage reveal that is both unsurprising and kind of seals the deal on the shift from a vaguely real-world setting to a pixelated one. The effects are pretty good until this characters shows up. Marco Beltrami’s score was probably “okay”, but I can’t recall a single note (can anyone remember any of his soundtracks?)


Aside from Okamoto, the performances are solid, just without strong characterisations to make them memorable; Rila Fukushima, with her quirky angular features, makes the strongest impression as Wolverine's feisty sidekick. The only bad thing I can say about Svetlana Khondchenkova’s Viper is that the she seems to have strayed from a full-blown X-Men movie; you can almost hear a producer demanding “more mutants!”  Jackman ripples with more man beef than he's ever sported before, but it feels like there’s left to do with this character solo. At least, not if you don’t have a really good story.


The end credits coda that is quite fun (Fox shamelessly stealing from actual Marvel movies there), and one has to assume that a certain physical alteration our hero undergoes will become a significant plot point in Days of Future Past. But is anyone really getting excited for it? I doubt that even the lure of a movie chock full of nigh on everyone who’s ever acted in the X-verse will substantially lift the box office. Fox had their fresh start with First Class but have chosen to reheat yesterday’s dinner. Like The Wolverine, it is sure to be entirely competent but sadly non-awesome.

*** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012)
The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.