There's a reason Marvel conceived the X-Men as a team: The menagerie of mutants are more interesting when they come in a pack. When the posse of super-powered outcasts was first brought to the screen by Bryan Singer in 2000, Hugh Jackman's mutton-chopped, adamantium-clawed Wolverine emerged as the stand-out super-freak. And Hollywood accounting being what it is, he was naturally granted his own solo encore in 2009's underwhelming X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a silly spin-off that never quite came together.
Now, to wipe the slate clean, Jackman and director James Mangold (Knight and Day; Girl, Interrupted) have teamed up to bring out the claws once again in The Wolverine. And while it's definitely a more entertaining and far deeper film than the last Wolverine outing, it still falls short of the top tier of Marvel tentpoles like the fizzy Iron Man and Sam Raimi's Spider-Man.
Based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's much-loved 1982 comic-book arc, The Wolverine is an existential (and at times soddenly heavy) story about our razor-taloned hero grappling with the burden of immortality and loss. But before we wade into that therapy session, the film opens with a harrowing sequence set, like most of the film, in Japan. It's WWII, and Jackman's Logan is imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp in Nagasaki as B-29s fly overhead to deliver the atomic bomb. During the blast he saves one of his captors, a soldier named Yashida, who, during the explosion, learns of Wolverine's invincibility and ability to heal his own wounds.
Decades later, Logan, who hasn't aged a day, has renounced violence and lives as a hirsute hermit in the Yukon. There, he's tracked down by a punky, red-haired Japanese pixie named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who informs him that the man he saved back in the prison camp is now a rich industrialist on his deathbed. He's requesting Logan's presence to thank him and settle the karmic debt that he believes he owes him. Of course, that's not all he wants.
Logan heads to Japan to pay his respects and discovers not only that the aging Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) wants to steal the secret to Logan's immortality, but also that he has a granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who's about to inherit his fortune and is in need of Logan's unique brand of badass protection. Why Logan complies is never really explained. Regardless, Logan and Mariko are on the run from a lethal posse of tattooed Yakuza and some other samurai-style baddies straight out of the Kill Bill playbook, including Yashida's femme fatale blonde nurse (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who possesses certain viper-y gifts of her own.
As Logan and his charge hit the road, sparks fly, ninjas attack, and Wolverine begins to experience something he never has before — the actual fear of death. He's been sapped of his eternal life force and now, when he gets into one of his signature slice-and-dice brawls, the wounds he suffers no longer cauterize and heal. He's both physically and emotionally vulnerable. In other words, human. All of this makes for a Wolverine tale that's more loaded with psychological questions (his immortality is seen as a curse) and makes the haunted character more interesting. Still, that's no excuse for the film's gauzy dream sequences with Famke Janssen's Jean Grey and its overall bloat, which leads up to a preposterous (and endless) final half hour.
Over the past decade, the Marvel brand has become a virtual guarantee of box-office bang. But someone over at the company's Quality Control Department really needs to look into tightening up these films. They just don't know when to end. That said, it's worth pointing out two things that The Wolverine gets right (aside from Jackman's always excellent, strong-and-silent-type performance as Logan). The first is an action sequence that occurs mid-way in the film, when Wolverine is being pursued on top of a bullet train. By now, we've all seen so many beat-downs atop locomotives that they've become numbingly similar. But the one in The Wolverine is so frantic and adrenalized (not to mention the only part of the film that takes advantage of 3-D) that the familiar becomes new again. The film also sticks the landing on a brief teaser scene after the end credits that hints at future developments in the X-Men universe. I won't spoil the pleasure of what happens. But you have to hand it to Marvel for managing to leave audiences breathless in anticipation of a sequel after making them sit through two-plus hours of merely satisfactory storytelling. Grade: B-