Thursday, 27 August 2015

Wednesday Reviews

The Wolverine

Hey, pachinkos! Am I calling you traditional Japanese betting games involving rains of metal balls there to insinuate you're all nothing but endless gaping maws into which our culture's wealth is squandered? As a memento mori to remind us that, despite our best efforts to catch them, the moments of our lives slip through our fingers like so many tinkling orbs? Or maybe I'm implying that you regularly get fondled in harshly lit back-alley amusement arcades by desperate old men with pocketfuls of loose change? Actually I was doing none of the above, but merely introducing the theme of Japan as a soft lede for this review of 2013's Tokyo-set superhero film The Wolverine. And though that wouldn't have been enough to work by itself, all this meta commentary has just about provided the necessary opening. Who said you can't have your cake and eat it, too? You just have to be able to put up with a cake that tastes faintly of self-loathing. But then doesn't everything, eh?

So, The Wolverine. After subjecting myself to the soggy, insipid mess of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (or X-Miaow, for sort of short) last week, you'd be forgiven for thinking I'm some kind of perverted sadist for rushing headlong into this with nary the time to wipe the tears from my home-made latex Wolverine costume. But I'm not. This film is an attempt to right the wrongs of X-Miaow, directed by James Mangold (of Cop Land and Walk the Line fame), with a story inspired by a much-loved comic book run from the 80s -- and it's only bloody brilliant.

Well, it's all right. It's way more involved and assured -- from the opening shot you feel safe in  Mangold's experienced hands -- and it's made by a bunch of people you can just tell all actually give a damn about doing justice to the character and underlying mythos.

Where X-Miaow tried to colour in the gaps in the canvas of the established cinematic canon, and ended up smudging the lines, drawing over bits that were better to begin with, then spilling a pot of paint all down its trousers, The Wolverine opts instead to rip its character from the old canvas and dump him in a new scene and see what happens. It's typical fish-out-of-water stuff as the gruff, no-nonsense Wolverine gets transported to a Japan dictated by custom, tradition, and the ever-looming presence of the Yakuza -- and the contrast between character and setting is used to paint the clearest portrait of old Claw-Hands yet put to film.

Mangold has fun with the tropes, as does the ever-enthusiastic Hugh Jackman, archly beefed up here for his, what, like sixtieth outing as Wolvy? The character fits as comfortably on Jackman as the familiarly faded denims; you can tell he relishes the role, clearly enjoying himself while working hard to stay true to the source material.

The film begins with a weathered and world-weary Wolverine living rough in the mountains, having hung up his claws and abandoned the superhero life following the events of X-Men 3. But though one particular memory weighs heavily on him, and was certainly the catalyst for his change, this is not the whole picture. More, we get the sense of an old soldier who has experienced too much killing, a man sick of who he was born to be and the only thing he knows how to do, worn down, past caring, not so much consciously running away as having simply accumulated too much shit and finding something deep and automatic within himself has snapped and lead him away from everything he knew. It's Paris, Texas, essentially -- only as far as I remember Harry Dean Stanton never killed a grizzly bear with retractable adamantium claws.

When a feisty Japanese girl with mad katana skills arrives to tell Wolverine that an old friend in Tokyo who is dying wishes to see him one last time, we recognise the herald calling him to adventure. An adventure, we know, that will force him to confront the pain he has been hiding from and offer him an opportunity to rediscover his raison d'etre.

It's pulpy stuff, for sure, but deftly handled, and as Wolverine's plane touches down in Tokyo we find ourselves drawn in.

Sadly, the film doesn't maintain the purity or cohesion for its duration. The plot ceases to make much sense approximately two minutes after arriving in Japan, and the early grittiness gradually gives way to primary-coloured villains, dastardly double-crosses, and the seemingly obligatory CGI-heavy action scenes so overblown as to shatter any suspension of disbelief the actors have worked to engender (though in fairness one fight above a moving bullet train does provide some satisfying physical comedy).

The thing holds together -- there is a nice scene about Nagasaki recovering from the Bomb, and an unexpectedly tender romance -- and the pace picks up after a convoluted second act for a suitably climactic showdown, but here, again, the better character-based drama is overshadowed by secret mountaintop lairs and armies of samurai and battles with ten-foot-tall chrome warriors wielding magma swords.

The film has done enough for us to stay invested to the end, but it's a shame that something that began like an accomplished graphic novel would turn out to be more of a children's comic. A well-constructed comic, replete with sufficient pay-offs and successful character arcs, but one that in the end finds far less to say than it made you hope for.

But maybe I'm asking too much. This is still a boisterous and enjoyable superhero movie that never takes itself too seriously while taking its duty to its fans very seriously indeed. The characters are believable -- the inclusion of a number of female leads who exist outside and above their relation to the male characters shouldn't need to but does deserve mention -- the script is tight, and Mangold directs with a steady hand. For better or worse, you can tell everyone involved in the production of The Wolverine really cared about bringing to life the story of an indestructible metal-clawed mutant. And their passion will make you care, too.

And that's enough superhero films for me for the moment, I reckon. See you on Friday! x

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