'The Wolverine': Jackman's claws are cause for applause
Here's an idea: What if Hugh Jackman reprised his Oscar-nominated Les Misérables role and revisited his bar-brawling X-Men mutant character - all in the same megawatts package? Jean Valjean with retractable adamantium claws! Logan belting out "Suddenly"!
Alas, it is not to be.
But The Wolverine, James Mangold's dark and stormy, and ragingly fun, X-Men thriller could be the next best thing.
Instead of starving, threadbare throngs of 19th-century French folk, we get the whooshing ninjas, tattooed yakuza, and anime cool of 21st-century Japan. And Jackman, ripped and brooding, gets hurled into a Shakespearean whirlpool of power plays and family intrigue, with bullet trains, pachinko parlors, and noodle soups thrown into the mix.
But first, to the Yukon: Who's this shaggy mountain man, his beard thick and matted like a nest? He huddles over a fire, drinking whiskey, the night sky overhead. He's a forgotten man, a hermit.
In the opening scenes of The Wolverine, Jackman's Logan is one gloomy Gus, hiding in the outback, licking his spiritual wounds. He could use a bath, a haircut, a shave. A manicure? Nah, better not.
It doesn't take long, though, for Logan's anger-management issues to upend his off-the-grid plans. A gang of hunters kill his only friend - a big grizzly bear (the two of 'em liked to go skulking together through the woods). So Logan tromps down the hill to town, finds the culprits in a saloon, and sets out to teach them a lesson.
Enter a punky girl wielding a samurai sword, showing off her martial-arts skills and insisting that the muscular mutant accompany her back to Tokyo.
Which is where they and The Wolverine go. She is Yukio (the tiny, twinkling Rila Fukushima), dispatched by a Japanese industrialist to find Logan and bring him to his home. The men share a rather apocalyptic history, and have some serious catching up to do.
Logan, then, becomes the Ugly American, the stranger in a strange land, completely out of his comfort zone. (And, yes, some kimono-clad housemaids insist he take a bath.) While 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine showed us the Marvel Comics superhero's powers of self-healing and immortality, in The Wolverine, Logan - after an encounter with a sexy oncologist (Svetlana Khodchenkova) - finds that suddenly those bullets and blade wounds are beginning to hurt. A couple of rounds of fisticuffs, and he's achy, bleeding, hobbling around with a limp. What gives?
Although The Wolverine eventually falls back on a comic-book formula and CG effects (the climactic face-off between Logan and a giant silver warriorlike thing is totally generic), Mangold and his team find time to explore more nuanced realms, as Logan becomes the protector, then lover, of Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the beautiful granddaughter of the man who summoned Logan to Japan.
When the couple go on the run from a gangster horde, they hide out in a "love hotel" - opting for the Mission to Mars room over the one with the nurse's-office decor. The Wolverine can be funny, too.
Apart from Khodchenkova, who displays the acting acumen of a runway model and gives new meaning to the term Russian mole (she's the villainous vixen of the tale, suited up in high heels and slinky, scaly couture), the cast of The Wolverine is uniformly good. Well, Famke Janssen - as the gauzy ghost of Jean Grey, Logan's X-Men teammate and soulmate - doesn't have much to do but look dreamily seductive. The Asian cast, however, is kicking - including the aforementioned Fukushima as Logan's impish, self-appointed bodyguard; Okamoto as Logan's elegant new amour, and Haruhiko Yamanouchi as the powerful patriarch.
On top of all that, The Wolverine explains why you should never leave your chopsticks sticking up in a bowl of rice. Good to know.
The Wolverine *** (out of four stars)
Directed by James Mangold. With Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Famke Janssen, and Svetlana Khodchenkova. Distributed by 20th Century Fox Films.
Running time: 2 hours, 6 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, drugs, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters