(SPOILERS) I was tepid on Logan’s prospects, both commercially and artistically, but the acclaim that has greeted it appears to have proved me wrong on both counts. And yet, and this really isn’t sour grapes, as I’d have loved to agree with the raves… I don’t think it’s a great movie. I don’t even think it’s the best X-Men movie. It has the kernel of a great movie, sporadically it’s a great movie, and Hugh Jackman gives a great performance – and another that’s not so great – but its estimable aspects are rather levelled by the sheer, unwavering competence of director James Mangold. It certainly doesn’t “transcend the genre”.
Don’t get me wrong. Logan’s a good movie. But my appreciation of it is tempered by buts, of how it falls short of its best intentions… It’s entirely valid to aspire to classics when setting out your movie stall, but it particularly felt as if the makers were on tenuous ground here, almost to the point of mashup, with the references ad nauseam to the kind of movie it was like, from Unforgiven and Shane (and good God, do they overegg that pudding, to the point of inanity – it’s hardly a classic adaptation anyway) to Paper Moon. The former, in particular, does Logan no favours at all, as it instantly draws attention to the gulf in quality between their screenplays. There are a series of strong beats in the script from Mangold, Michael Green (the upcoming Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049) and Scott Frank, but they’re no collective David Webb Peoples, and the end result bears similar structural issues to Frank’s earlier The Wolverine, the most pervasive being the failure to come up with a remotely worthy antagonist. That, and a less-than-spectacular finale (and in a final curtain such as this, it’s all about the finale).
So, on the positive side, the reconfiguration of the X-Men saga to a derelict, pre-apocalyptic 2029 in which mutants have all but died out thanks to Richard E Grant’s Dr Rice, and in which the increasingly sickly, toxified Logan (there’s a push-pull relationship with the advances of science here; on the one hand, medication keeps Charles from imperilling others, on the other, the name of advancement has washed up the Wolverine) cares for the increasingly frail, mentally absent Charles Xavier, is striking and arresting.
This is easily the most interesting Xavier has been on the big screen, a character haunted by his mistakes (a definite bonus to leave the Westchester Incident unvisualised) and the infirmity of the very faculty that set him above the rest; trying to bring a whiter-than-white character back down to a relatable level is no small task, but it’s achieved here in a compelling way, and Stewart, who can be wearisomely stoical in his roles, gives it his all. Although, and here’s the but: sure, go for a higher certificate, but don’t lob F-bombs around indiscriminately just because you can.
Logan’s the kind of character who would believably swear like a trooper, Charles just isn’t, and giving him a whole scene of f-ing and blinding feels like pandering, either to the actor or to an adolescent urge (Deadpool, of course, was an entire movie personifying an adolescent urge) to overindulge what hasn’t been seen in the series before; all that’s missing is Professor X ordering hookers and smoking a crack pipe. The real deal would have been showing the maturity to hold back when necessary, to go overboard only when it had most impact. Instead, there are occasions when the swearing and violence derive from the same kind of juvenile idea of “adult” material as Deadpool; now we can show titties! That’s why we have a scene where Charles does nothing but speak with a potty mouth, whether or not its germane to his character (sure, you can argue he’s a man at the end of his tether, but what you want is contrast with Logan, preserving an aspect of the character’s dignity, rather than everyone sounding like their vernacular has been punched up by David Mamet).
The violence too. Some of it is as giddily enervating as John Wick Chapter Two’s. The opening carjacking sequence is a masterpiece of building up to what we want to see: Logan unleashed. But this new-found taste for gore, like anything, quickly loses its lustre if every altercation is like that. The final sprint in the woods is well-enough handled, but the extreme splatter on display is already over-familiar by that point.
In between, there’s at least one other fine sequence, in which Logan valiantly struggles through a hotel to inject Charles with a suppressant, taking out immobile heavies on the way. And the whirling dervish of Laura/X-23 (Dafne Keen, who bears a passing resemblance to Lukas Hass circa Witness), going crazy on anyone and everyone also leads to some well-choreographed action. But here’s the thing. There’s a nagging feeling in each case that they could have been even better (perhaps that’s partly a consequence of some absurd and ridiculous buzz that compared the quality of filmmaking here to Fury Road), and between the rumbles, Mangold often appears to confuse languid pacing with character development; there just isn’t enough depth to the characterisation and storytelling to justify the longueurs, as strong as the main trio of performances are.
I expected the worst from teaming Logan up with a pint-sized sidekick, particularly an adamantine-clawed one, but thanks to Keen’s performance this is element is an unreserved success, avoiding the urge to sentimentalise as Laura’s presence rekindles Charles’ innate compassion and Logan’s grudging sense of duty and responsibility. There was a point where I feared, having spent so much of the movie mute, that Keen would reveal herself as not such a thespian after all when she began speaking, but the only bum notes struck are Laura wailing “Daddy!” as he dies (she doesn’t seem like the kind of kid to use that word, even if she feels that emotion – it might be Mangold tipping his hat to Aliens) and the remarkable memory Laura shows when spouting Shane by way of eulogy over Logan’s grave. The movie didn’t need the extended clip anyway, and this just cements that.
Other sequences and emotional beats don’t quite attain the heights they’re reaching for. They’re fine on paper but Mangold’s too workmanlike. The interlude at the farm is strong in theory, but it hasn’t yet been earned at this point, and the various elements brought to bear fail to make the murder of the family a satisfying (if that’s the word) horror to avenge. Much of that is down to the nature of the beast. Being the X-24. Having mostly avoid spoilers outside of trailers, I was unprepared for his introduction, and initially thought the anti-Logan might be an elaborate dream sequence. Certainly that, while not ideal, would have been preferable to the banality of yet another alter-ego villain. One that doesn’t even offer Jackman an acting challenge since all he is guttural rage (Superman III’s evil Supes, on the other hand, was the highlight of that particular affair). Yadda yadda the greatest enemy is yourself. Maybe, but only if presented in an interesting manner.
This is also where Unforgiven comparisons simply break down. The pieces are in place – the savage slaying of Logan’s dearest friend as a spur to vengeance – but the conveyer of this act carries no dramatic or emotional weight. Not even with the brain and brawn split with Grant. Now, Reg is great, but he’s entirely wasted in Logan, given nothing in the way of wit or even a hint of depth. About the only notable aspect of his presence is the manner in which Logan shoots him in the head in the middle of a ream of exposition. Admittedly, Unforgiven was Mark Millar’s premise for Old Man Logan, and Mangold probably rightly departed significantly from it (quite apart from issues of various other character rights), but what he didn’t find was a worthy foe for Logan’s last stand.
Of the rest of the cast, Boyd Holbrook provides a cocksure mocking tone as cybernetically enhanced head Reaver Pierce, and he’s a good enough actor to make his leading duties in The Predator something to rest easy about, but Pierce isn’t, when it comes to it, a goon for the ages.
And Stephen Merchant’s Caliban… Well, he’s okay. He isn’t much of an actor, Merchant. Take out the comedy and that’s blatantly obvious, but he gets by (it’s probably also why his best line is about being little more than a glorified truffle pig). What chafes rather is that Tómas Lemarquis was profoundly superior in his one scene in the uneven (and much-derided) X-Men: Apocalypse. In narrative terms, the kiddie mutants are a motley crew who really ought to have been in training up that mountain for just such an event as befalls them in the final reel. And distracting that the most formidable amongst them’s super skill appears to be grass weaving.
Thematically? Besides a serviceable meditation on regret and loss (when someone expiring actually says “So this is what it feels like”, you aren’t dealing with better than serviceable)? Did Fox have an insight into the election outcome? Was the fix in? How else to explain the Trump’s America border wall with Mexico, and Canada seen as an undisputed safe haven? There are also derivative elements such as drones used to (indirectly) pick off innocents. The running with the child experimentation thing is interesting, however. Obviously, it runs deep with the Wolverine saga anyway, but off the back of Stranger Things it feels like there’s a resurgent theme of the dark and deadly abuses inflicted by an establishment knowing no bounds. Much has been made of the intradiegetic aspect of the X-Men comic books appearing in the story, but it didn’t really do much for me; are you undercutting the mythology of a character or re-mythologising him? Make a decision. Either way, you need a director with the chops to underline the element through artistry.
I suppose you can never say never again with these kinds of movies. They could easily resuscitate Jackman from the grave if the deal was sweet enough, or set him in an earlier time, and there are bound to be offers due to the picture’s unqualified financial success, but he’d be wise to stick to his guns. He’s a fine actor who has made much of not that interesting (as in, to justify a series of solo vehicles) character. I’m sure that’s heresy to some, but Wolverine/Logan seems to me to be a character better in silhouette than attempting to flesh out, and that we’ve got this far is all down to Hugh. It’s just a shame that the kind of farewell catharsis that should have been is rather undermined by a screenplay that fumbles the final hurdle; nothing amps up or unfolds quite as effectively as it should, is quite as tragic as it might be. Which is frustrating, as it comes close. So, Logan is the best of the solo Wolverine vehicles, but it lingers some way behind First Class and Days of Future Past in the pantheon. What it does leave me wondering is how long this newly-ignited capacity for swearing, sex and splatter in comic book movies will last before makers realise the tail is wagging the dog.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.