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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: The Wolverine

U.S.: James Mangold, 2013

The Wolverine

Hugh Jackman may have sung up a storm as Victor Hugo’s long-suffering Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper’s impressively non-lip-synched movie Les Misérables. But as the title superhero of The Wolverine, Jackman is, for a while, faster than a speeding bullet train — which is probably more impressive to some audiences. After all, anybody can sing. But how many movie guys can battle a robot, clout a Viper and race through a riot with the richest woman in Japan?

Jackman is a movie star who seethes with talent. And if not all of it is on tap in The Wolverine—if the show often seems a slightly silly project for a serious or even an unserious actor—it’s still pretty much fun to watch. The second Wolverine offshoot of the X-Men series, it’s been called the best superhero movie of the summer (or the year) and it probably is. I wouldn’t want to get into any arguments about it, especially with the fans of a pec-flexing character who scowls and squints like Clint Eastwood, and sports what look like foot-long steel talons shooting out of his fingers.

The first good thing to be said about The Wolverine—loosely inspired by a four-issue comic series by Frank Miller—is that it mercifully doesn‘t end with a multi-destruction war in which a large city is attacked by supervillains and defended by superheroes. Instead, it merely has an old-fashioned climactic brawl between our intrepid superhero Wolverine (a.k.a. Logan) and several super or semi-super villains. And that isn’t even the movie’s best action scene. The train fight is. Iron Man Three, eat your heart out.

The movie begins Inception-like with dreams (by Wolverine) that start with the A-bombing of Nagasaki at the end of World War II, and show the long-lived Logan escaping from a huge well, while saving the life of heroic young soldier Yashida (Ken Yamamura). That dream dissolves into another one with Logan and his deceased lady love Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) in bed, and then dissolves again into the snowy woods in grizzly country where bears prowl and a piquant little pink-hired doll named Yukio (played by the lively Rila Fukushima) has popped up to guide him back to Japan and to the now extremely old and dying and very, very rich Yashida (played in old age by Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who wants to glom onto his one-time Yank savior‘s secret of eternal (or thereabouts) wolverine life—besides introducing him to his own granddaughter-heiress and Logan’s eventual leading lady, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). (I was rooting for Yukio, but then I always was a sucker for a sense of humor.)

The WolverineYashida wants Wolverine longevity? Fat chance, Soon, at Yashida’s funeral, all photogenic hell breaks loose and we see such combatants and character actors as Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), Harada (Wil Yun Lee), Naburo (Brian Tee), and the slitheringly sexy and cold-blooded Viper, played with venomous pizzazz by Svetlana Kodchenkova, as well as some dude in a robot suit who gets in on the action at the end.

Now there’s a dramatis personae for you! I didn’t even mention the Dick Tracy-style thug Pock-Face, played by Shinji Ikefuji. Or Yukio’s chubby rock-‘n-roll boyfriend Kukio, played by Yatsujiro Fatsujiro. Or the insane Gourmet Yakuza chef Akira Who Devours Dragons with Rice, played by Ikiwuki Sukiyaki. Two of them don’t exist, but I’m sure we can sneak them all out in a spoiler alert. (Just kidding.)

Anyway, as it picks up speed, and digs deeper than usual, The Wolverine becomes both gratifying and frustrating. The movies, despite all visible evidence to the contrary, were not invented primarily in order to mount and display vast kajillion-dollar action spectacles derived from the collective works of the comic book factories D. C. and Marvel Comics. But as long as so much time is being spent and so much expense is being lavished on them—and so much less on the kind of fine novels, good plays, and heartfelt original stories that used to be fodder for Hollywood movie scripts (and were fashioned into both botches and classics)—let’s hope that more of the super-adventures that are made are as good as this one.

The Wolverine was directed by the almost bizarrely versatile James Mangold (Heavy, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) and the script is credited to a gifted threesome that includes Christopher McQuarrie (of the noirish The Usual Suspects), Mark Bomback (of the incredibly exciting train thriller Unstoppable) and Scott Frank (of a number of good or interesting pictures including Out of Sight, Get Shorty and Minority Report)—and their show pours on the action and the production values. But it also ladles out the personality, and emotion that these kinds of movies often skimp on—and even throws in some humor. It’s a good show, full of zip and style—maybe not as good as I may be making it seem. But you can’t say this film doesn’t do what it’s meant to do, or that it doesn’t joyously exceed some of the usual parameters. Man of Steel, eat your heart out.

The second good thing to be said is that our superhero is refreshingly non-super at times. The Wolverine is definitely my favorite Wolverine or X-Men movie, in part because Logan this time is given what can be a hero’s most precious quality, vulnerability. Jackman plays him as someone with weaknesses—and one of his most striking moments occurs when he drags himself though the snow, the target of bad guy archers and festooned with spears until he resembles some porcupine St. Sebastian.

The third good thing is that the movie, set in Japanese backgrounds, designed by Francois Audouy and photographed by Ross Emery, looks absolutely great. Not as great as Gate of Hell maybe, but certainly better than most super-action pictures. The beauty of the classic Japanese hysterical movies, and some modern ones, often comes from a mixture of aestheticism and violence, grace and deadly force, and The Wolverine has a lot of that mix. The movie genuinely knocks your eyes out, and not just when Yukio, Mariko and The Viper are on camera.

Like many of the super-action movies, this one doesn’t make sense at times. But The Wolverine looks great and it has some emotional depth and when it has to, it moves like lightning. And Jackman, most of the time, looks either super or heroic or both. Eat your heart out, Captain America.

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And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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