It’s rare that a movie stops making sense before anyone speaks a line of intelligible dialogue, but “The Wolverine” is a rare movie.
It begins a few minutes before the atomic bomb falls on Nagasaki near the end of World War II. The title character is a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp and – no, stop right there. The Wolverine is unstoppable, unkillable, has the power to repair any injury to himself, has strength bordering on the supernatural, and he’s being held prisoner by some guys with rifles.
Why? Because we don’t have a movie if he isn’t. Common-sense-wise, it’s all downhill from there.
Logan (Hugh Jackman) saves a Japanese soldier from nuclear fallout by lying on top of him for a few hours. The grateful soldier grows up to be the most powerful billionaire industrialist in Asia and, 68 years later, invites Logan to Japan to offer a deal: The agonized Wolverine can transfer his immortality to the dying billionaire and join his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in death.
Subplots sprout like poison ivy blisters after that. There’s a mutant scientist named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), whose snakelike tongue and breath transmit venom; a samurai punk girl with dyed red hair (Rila Fukushima); the billionaire’s martially adept granddaughter (Tao Okamoto); corrupt politicians; a murderous father (always nice to see Hiroyuki Sanada of “The Ring” getting work); and an enormous robot wielding a flaming sword of adamantine – the same material used to make Logan’s indestructible skeleton – who wants to hack off Wolverine’s claws.
Wait a minute: I forgot the ninja archers with poisoned arrows!
Yes, the movie’s an adaptation of a comic book. No, I don’t expect realism: I’m willing to agree that an ordinary human being could do backflips atop a bullet train moving at top speed and land on his feet. But the film has a desperation about it: Writers Mark Bomback and Scott Frank and director James Mangold hurl plot point after plot point at us as if they were boring themselves and afraid to bore us as well.
Viper, for instance, barely matters to the filmmakers, who forget her for long stretches. What is she after? Where did her superpower come from? At one point, she slits her own face open and starts to pull her skin apart – she’s a snake, right? – to reveal her true self. And it’s someone who looks exactly the same as she did, but with no hair: That’s the limit to which the filmmakers’ imaginations extend. The real question is how Khodchenkova got this job, as she’s slightly less frightening than an irritated possum.
The special effects work well enough, though the film doesn’t exploit its 3-D medium thoroughly. But that alone can’t carry even a comic-book adaptation now, and merely trotting out the same cranky, weary Wolverine takes us no further. (Don’t even ask how this fits into the story told in the 2009 dud “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” That tale would have had to be set in the 1930s for Wolverine to be captured by the Japanese in the 1940s, and it wasn’t.)
Jackman looks buff and angry and pained at every moment, like a bodybuilder trying to pass a kidney stone. There’s a beauty-and-the-beast quality to his romantic pairing with the billionaire’s granddaughter, but not one we can believe. And he’s constantly distracted by visions of Jean Grey in heaven, where hot chicks wear lacy underthings for eternity.
The Japanese actresses have that slender, childlike sexiness Asian media have exploited (somewhat perversely) for decades. It’s no surprise to learn that both women began as models, though Fukushima’s wicked sense of humor peeps through her character’s ironic façade and pronouncements of doom.
At the risk of a tiny spoiler, I’ll tell you the largest applause at the preview screening came during a post-credits sequence, when Wolverine encountered Magneto and Professor Xavier in an airport and learned of a weapon that will turn all of humankind against mutants. (Hasn’t Magneto warned all along that this would happen?)
Audience members may simply have been pleased to see two old friends show their faces. But I can’t help wondering whether they were also cheering the prospect of seeing Wolverine’s character return to a supporting role.
You can be angry and noble (Thor) or angry and ironic (Iron Man) or angry and tragic (Hulk/Bruce Banner) and carry a feature-length picture effectively, especially if that film offers a villain as compelling as Loki. But when you’re angry and mopey, you’re not much company for two hours.
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