July 25--The Wolverine
Action. Starring Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima and Tao Okamoto. Directed by James Mangold. (PG-13. 120 minutes.)
Somewhere along the line somebody must have had a crazy idea, that maybe for once the Wolverine required a decent script, and shouldn't rely only on action, audience goodwill and the sight of Hugh Jackman with his shirt off. And so a team was assembled, made up of people who have made some very good movies.
Those movies are too many to list here, but for a taste: Director James Mangold made "Walk the Line" and "3:10 to Yuma," and screenwriters Mark Bomback, Scott Frank and Christopher McQuarrie made "Live Free or Die Hard," "Out of Sight" and "The Usual Suspects," respectively. This time out, nobody is slumming.
Within five minutes, it's apparent that the audience, and "The Wolverine," are in good hands. The movie, a sequel to 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," begins with three gripping sequences, including a vivid one in which our hero survives the atomic bomb blast at Nagasaki. Of course he does -- he's that kind of person. His hair and skin may be burned off, but he flexes and growls, and a moment later, everything has grown back.
Less immediately apparent than the quality of the action is the subtle and welcome change the filmmakers have wrought in Wolverine. Of the mutant superhero X-Men, he was always the sad sack, the depressive, the self-hating one, the one who didn't want to use his powers; but in "The Wolverine," he is less angst-ridden, and more angry and motivated, which activates the movie.
Straight-up action hero
At the start, he is drifting and haunted by nightmares, but he still has the gumption to pick a fight when he witnesses an injustice. In the best way, he is more like a straight-up action hero -- no longer a miserable guy like Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man, but capable, dangerous and, when it's called for, sarcastic.
The clash between mutants and humans has been the relentless focus of previous "X-Men" movies. "The Wolverine" drops that exhausted subject in favor of something more clear-cut and immediate: The Wolverine is asked to travel to Japan in order to say goodbye to the man whose life he saved in Nagasaki. The Wolverine, who's not doing much of anything these days besides growing out his sideburns, agrees, and soon gets involved in a tangled and dangerous conflict over the old man's will. The old man skips over his own son and makes his granddaughter, Marika (Tao Okamoto), the richest woman in Asia.
A nice feature of "The Wolverine" is that it always stays with our hero, and his task is always simple and easy to grasp, despite whatever complicating machinations are taking place off camera. He saves Marika's life -- as soon as people find out that she is about to inherit everything, armies of assassins pop out from everywhere -- and he becomes determined to keep her alive. Why? Because he's a nice guy, and he likes her.
Unfortunately, the Wolverine is not the best relationship material at the moment. He can't go to sleep without having nightmares that cause him to leap out of the sheets, waving his adamantine knuckle blades, ready to kill anything that moves. Handsome or not, he is definitely a case for separate beds.
"The Wolverine" is the first film from the X-Men universe to show Jackman to full advantage. The actor has worked himself into a physical condition that is downright humbling, or inspiring, depending on your viewpoint, and his performance is in the best action tradition of strength and humor.
The action sequences are not perfunctory and, though they had to have been cooked up on a computer, they don't look like it. Or at least, they're imaginative enough that you don't have time to think of them in that way.
For example, there's a chase on top of a train, a familiar action-movie trope last seen as recently as "The Lone Ranger," a few weeks ago. But the chase in "The Wolverine" takes place on a Japanese bullet train going 300 mph, which completely changes the dynamic. The scene is faster, quieter and more eerie, and the fighting requires different strategies.
"The Wolverine" shows that, while originality would be nice, a little novelty and enthusiasm in the presentation of the familiar can be quite enough. The bottom line is that audiences aren't stupid and will not settle for just anything, as the anemic box office for recent blockbusters is showing. "The Wolverine" deserves to break out from the pack.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: email@example.com
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