A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on August 1, 2013.
Featuring the buff and brilliant Hugh Jackman as Logan in the lead role, “The Wolverine” is more a solemn and stylish meditation on life and death than an action movie based on a comic book, distinguishing itself from the apocalypse-pandering spectacles we’ve come to expect from summer blockbusters.
In fact, the only explosion in “The Wolverine” takes place within the opening sequence and serves as the foundation of the central drama, introducing Logan as a man whose immortality has worn him down existentially to the point that when one character offers him a chance at a normal life, Logan has a tough decision to make.
Cut to many, many years later and Logan is lonely and despondent, somewhere in the wilderness. He’s unkempt, living off the land. One of his only possessions is the picture of a former lover whose tragic fate fills his nightmares.
“Everyone you love dies,” she reminds him before he wakes screaming in a cold sweat, his claws extended from his fists.
“Eternity can be a curse,” another character tells Logan later on.
Finally, we have reason to care for an indestructible man.
For those unfamiliar with the “X-Men” universe, Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, is a mutant, whose genetic mutations allow him to rapidly heal from any wound, and grow indestructible claws from his knuckles. He also doesn’t age. For all intents and purposes, he is immortal.
But this isn’t an “X-Men” movie, though there are other mutants in “The Wolverine.” In the worst of the those films, the mutant powers were just plot devices to justify cartoonish special effects.
Here, they serve thematic purposes. Each character has a trait or motivation that helps Logan come to terms with the past that constantly haunts him in his dreams.
Logan gets the chance to consider his life through the prism of the supporting characters when a young and fierce, sword-wielding Japanese girl named Yukio, whose employer wants to repay a debt to Logan, approaches him.
The two team up, travel to Tokyo, and find themselves entangled in a family drama that sets in motion an unlikely, but earnest love affair, as well as some sensational action sequences that actually drive the narrative forward. One involves ninjas, and another that simply must not be missed takes place atop a 300 mph bullet train.
As Yukio, newcomer Rila Fukushima is sprightly with platinum-red hair and cheekbones as sharp as her sword. She’s a joy to watch; her face conveys a youthful optimism in contrast to Logan’s seemingly endless brooding.
As Logan, Mr. Jackman has never been better, and his muscles never bigger. He brings a physical gravitas to the role as well as an exhausting vulnerability. He can render so powerfully on the screen what might have once been laughable on the page. When he howls in anguish, we understand his pain and fear for his victims. It’s a role he was born to play.
Mr. Jackman’s balanced performance speaks to the overall tone of the movie, which is quietly fantastical yet relatable in a way that is refreshing for an otherwise bloated genre.
3.5 stars out of 4.