Fox’s second attempt at monetising Hugh Jackman’s popular manimal in a standalone adventure, following 2009’s X-Men: First Draft, is a modest improvement. It’s a simpler beast, self-contained for the most part, with a distinct Asian flavour. Sadly, any hope that this take two adventure would elevate the character to new cinematic heights soon mutates into disappointment.
Forced by circumstance to straddle the Singer/Ratner trilogy and the forthcoming reprise, Days of Future Past, James Mangold’s film wisely maintains a narrow focus, charting its principle character’s emergence from reclusiveness, while dropping in Famke Janssen as a eroticised Obi-Wan Kenobi, whose dream sequence cameos exist to remind audiences why Logan’s so morose: he still can’t quite believe what Brett Ratner did with that second sequel. You’re not alone bub; many withdrew from the world when Vinnie Jones was cast.
Though it exists primarily to reassure the bean counters that a spin-off series featuring the taloned metal mickey is viable, thereby laying to rest the ghost of Gavin Hood’s misfire, as well as acting as a curtain raiser to next summer’s all-mutant tidying up exercise, it’s hard to understand why The Wolverine had to be so thudderingly unambitious. First Class proved that these mutant movies can be psychologically dense affairs but Mangold’s story advances Jackman’s muscleman not one jot; merely contriving to throw him an attractive damsel in distress so he’ll get over his once lethal ex-girlfriend and realise he’s better at fighting than living rough in the mountains.
The lesson’s learned in Japan, affording the opportunity to spice up the formula with samurai swordplay, ninjas and an exotic locale. For a while these elements detract from the paucity of well-rounded characters; this being a one man show in which said man gets little in the way of snappy dialogue or well orchestrated action; but as it continues and Mangold truncates what could have been a fine setpiece featuring the bullet train, going on to deliver a similarly short and underwhelming climax, it’s apparent that all concerned were content for The Wolverine to be generic and straightforward.
It’s not an approach that’s going to harm the character or the franchise; it’s a risk free proposition; but nor does it provide audiences with an essential addition to the series. Jackman remains good value in the part but snarl and swipe though he might, his craggy features edging ever closer to mid ‘80s Clint Eastwood, there’s little he can do to elevate a guileless movie that’s been dulled on the page and sanitised in the editing suite.
There are compensations. Svetlana Khodchenkova adds colour and sex appeal as mutant guest star, Viper, and Jackson’s energy ensures it seldom flags, despite a generous running time of 126 minutes. That’s not quite enough to make The Wolverine first class however; it feels like a step backwards after Matthew Vaughn’s rich prequel; but fans of the eponymous biker, in an undemanding mood, may glean some enjoyment from the film’s simple matinee heroics.