The Wolverine (2013)

★★★

The Wolverine PosterDirector: James Mangold

Release Date: July 25th, 2013 (UK); July 26th, 2013 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima

Wolverine is a tough customer, but even he struggled to chop his way through Gavin Hood’s frankly disappointing attempt at a Wolvie origin story (unsurprisingly, the only of its kind). Step forward James Mangold, of Walk the Line fame, a man who seemingly boasts a better grasp of X-Men lore. But the refreshing thing about his film, The Wolverine, isn’t necessarily anything to do with comic-book compatibility — having never read them I wouldn’t know. Rather, this outing flavours the antics of its familiar hero with a style and sleekness. The setting has changed and for the better. In a way, this is the past meeting the future before Days of Future Past and it’s good up until a point. Unfortunately, Mangold’s infusion of difference carries an expiry date and The Wolverine goes bad before the credits roll.

Now ticking by the hours amongst bears and sporting a wild-man look that sees a ragged beard and matching hair, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has more or less shelved the Wolverine persona. That is, until he is approached by the mysterious prophetic mutant Yukio (Rila Fukushima), representative of a dying officer whom Logan saved during the Nagasaki bombings in 1945. Upon reaching Japan, Logan finds himself embroiled in a game of morality in which his powers of eternal being are the highly sought after prize.

Early on a checkout woman asks, “You’re not a hunter are you?” to which Logan replies solemnly, “Not anymore”. With every crack and crevice of the redemption story already explored, particularly when it comes to superhero-esque flicks, The Wolverine opts to go down a slightly different route. The basis is set in stone — Wolverine must reacclimatise to life without his deceased wife Jean Grey as he continues to battle demons of immortality — but the delivery is somewhat altered. What we are watching is a film-noir crime thriller that bubbles with tension and gleams stylishly. Decorative villas host men wearing fashioned suits armed with polished weaponry. Wolverine’s claws appear shinier than ever before. Its efficient visuality won’t come as a surprise to those who know of director James Mangold’s previous work. (Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma are wonderfully constructed optical specimens). The film is a moment in time, a spin-off concocted from James Bond DNA. Wolverine: The Japan Years. This glossy air infuses vitality, at least for a while.

Mark Bomback and Scott Frank’s screenplay succeeds in tandem and for just as long as Ross Emery’s cinematography. Surrounded by new characters, Wolverine, previously left beaten and worn-out by his last solo run, just about regains his panache (though there’s still a way to go in this aspect). Modern meets tradition as Jackman’s mutant, juggling recognisable morals, finds himself in a contemporary setting; imbued by technology and the bright lights of Tokyo. Weapons vary from the time-honoured bow and arrow to the upgraded Uzi. The violence-oriented syndicate Yakuza, well-versed in global cinema — they’ve even got their own genre in Japan — are given a current update, forced into rapid pursuits throughout the hyper mobile urban machine that is Japan. Mariko, granddaughter of Logan’s WWII ally Yashida, must contend with a conventional arranged marriage, but even these are given a modern makeover by way of corporate intentions. The film’s mixture of 21st century comic-bookishness and past histories is a compatible one; we feel comfortable and connected to a familiar face in Wolverine, but also rejuvenated by a new climate.

Unfortunately, it’s a climate that eventually succumbs to a torrential downpour of sameness. At around the half-way point a romance blazes, the same one that we’ve spent the past hour begging not to. It’s that usual love story that seems to be written into the contract of every blockbuster, and this time it simply ain’t believable. Nor does it aid the narrative’s progression. Instead, the romantic exploits are blasé and distracting, if nothing else. Not only does the pace simmer to an unsatisfying canter as it supports these non-necessities, the love aspect also dampens Wolverine’s domineering aura. Jackman isn’t to blame, quite the opposite, he’s the one who rekindles a degree or two of verve through his blunt humour and hard-working personality. The Aussie is a very watchable presence — it’s a character issue that arises, as opposed to a performance one.

The piece tonally scampers around too, though this favours rather than hinders goings-on. On one hand, we have a dark underbelly that sees Logan possess a semi-suicidal state of mind. He must endure the mental scars of previous actions, and his inherent prerogative to save lives — such as preventing Mariko from jumping off a cliff — doesn’t exactly rub off on himself. (“You are a soldier… [you seek] an honourable death.”) Yet the seriousness never really wields unfathomable weight. In one sense, this means the film can’t be taken as earnestly in dramatic terms, but it does usher forth a loosening up, combining entertainment with solid if not wholesome sentimental musings. One of the film’s best scenes is also its most bonkers: a brawl atop a moving train severely tows the line of realism, and it’s damn fun to watch.

As previously mentioned, Jackman does his best Wolverine impression, but it is just that. His quick-wittedness and excellent comedic timing coalesce with the film’s at times briskly humorous breeze. (“I feel violated,” states a clean Logan.) Rila Fukushima is energetic as recruiter Yukio and, along with Tao Okamoto, brings a much appreciated newness to the screen. Svetlana Khodchenkova plays Viper, one slice of a villainous pie, exuding intelligence and power in the role. She’s the quintessential Bond character transferred over to Marvel, classically camp and elegantly sexy.

The first half of this is something to admire: formalities are given life through hushed slickness and a collision of tradition versus modernity. It’s a shame that The Wolverine ultimately bears the brunt of genericism, but Mangold’s solid effort shouldn’t be discounted by any means.

The Wolverine - Hugh Jackman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

★★★★

X Men Days of Future Past PosterDirector: Bryan Singer

Release Date: May 22nd, 2014 (UK); May 23rd, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence

Whereas Matthew Vaugh’s franchise revitaliser X-Men: First Class gained plaudits for its cast-iron story told with an injection of slickness and youthful energy, this next stop in mutant-ville is something quite different indeed. Ambition is the word that instantly springs to mind; from the moment livelihood-altering time travel is suggested (though it’s more mind travel) until the film’s final buzz-inducing reel, X-Men: Days of Future Past presents a whirlwind of famous faces enraptured in a spider’s web of plot, humour and enticing entertainment. Along the way Bryan Singer’s instalment exhumes a few hiccups, particularly as well-versed characters get caught up in allegiance purgatory, and the film’s lack of transparency when it comes to who wears the most villainous shoes is a problem too. But d’you know what? It’s tough to get anywhere without ambition, and this Inception-cum-Minority Report outing sprinkled with comic book enthusiasm has enormous ambition. Unsurprisingly then, it gets somewhere.

It’s 2023 and the world is being pillaged by Sentinel robots that bare only grudges, towards mutants and humans alike. Long-time enemies Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) congregate with a number of X-Men and hatch a plan to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) mind south, back to 1973, in an attempt to cut the Sentinel problem at its source — that is, Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Wolverine’s solitary hope in regards to changing the course of history lies in tandem with a united mutant front, where differences are pushed to the side for the greater good. Only, this proves to be an obstacle for Professor X and Magneto’s younger selves, the duo irrevocably at odds over morality.

Days of Future Past purveys an ever-increasing sense of magnitude. As the film progresses we entertain thoughts of grandeur, that this might be a final hurrah for some. There are so many faces on screen that the loss of simply just one begins to feel unlikely. Many will succumb, we feel, and this undoubtedly instils a weighty load atop proceedings. At one point Trask urges the need for his Sentinel program: “A common enemy against the ultimate enemy… extinction.” The line represents this all-or-nothing undercurrent that drives events, ushering forth supreme unpredictability. The most engaging X-Men films are those that contort whichever mutant-human relationship is in fashion during said time period, and here we begin to see the inner-workings of primitive convolution.

Much like its predecessor, Days of Future Past wears the international climate within which the film is primarily set like a rain jacket on a cloudy day: posing relevant questions and suitably prepared for any proceeding answers. We’ve advanced a few decades since First Class and are now thoroughly engulfed a Vietnam War culture where blame is tossed left and right like a hot potato and international relations are frazzled at best. Musings over corporate-compelled destruction of the mutant race are a reflection of US military intervention across Asia. Discussions between the suit-wearing brass are centred on geopolitics, the language bolstering accusation and condemnation. (“You will have lost two wars in one lifetime.”) Despite an inordinate helping of fantastical powers such as shape-shifting and object manipulation — a stadium relocation is equally as impressive as it daunting — the shrouding of events in familiar histories gives the film vital realism that otherwise might be lost. At various points, Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography shape-shifts into stock footage of JFK assassination ilk, further furnishing authenticity.

Action sequences that spawn from the aforementioned clash of mutant and humankind are exhilarating. Carrying a wonderful visual gloss, these moments serve to get the heart pumping and, admirably, never oust the film’s emotional prerogative. Though, the same cannot be said for plot goings-on. It’s not universally indecipherable, however the narrative does falter on occasion. As Wolverine awakens in 1973, “First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” consciously lamenting with poignancy in the air around him, there’s a struggle between reality and non-reality that never fully realises closure. His present self is dropped into the past, but where is his past self? The Wolverine character hits a stumbling block or two as the film progresses. His main objective is to rally the X-troops, but that’s about it. Afterwards, the mutant mainstay becomes something of a generic piece in the puzzle. An impeding notion arises, therefore, that him being selected to go back in time is more of a Hugh Jackman star power issue as opposed to a Wolverine character arc issue. “You sent back the wrong man,” says the Aussie.

Nonetheless it is the characters who generally hold the key to success. A few have never been better relayed on screen. As young Charles Xavier, James McAvoy steals the show in a performance of initial enduring frailty and disillusionment. He has lost everything, yet refrains from morphing into a charity case. Rather, our sympathy is earned through the Scot’s heart-wrenching depiction of a broken man, one of McAvoy’s best turns to date. A scene between he and his older manifestation is arguably the best of the entire piece, a memorable moment made so with the aid of Patrick Stewart. On the flip side, Michael Fassbender’s domineering Magneto is cold and calculated; we never truly know where his allegiance lies. The impressiveness in Fassbender’s performance comes by way of a subtle regret that he exudes, a nuance that holds greater verve as Magneto embraces his thirst for resolution. Jennifer Lawrence is icy as Mystique, her desire for revenge both ambiguous and purposeful.

Though Mystique engages in a number of villainous acts, she’s never intended to be the definitive villain. In fact there is no real categorical antagonist here. The closest we get is Peter Dinklage’s suit-wearing scientist Bolivar Trask, though his infrequent appearances on screen tend to hinder any evil momentum. “Trask is the enemy,” we are informed and, although his Sentinel program is born from an unsavoury mindset, Dinklage never really comes across as the heinous bad guy that he probably should. Days of Future Past is layered with humour, often successful attempts too, and Quicksilver speeds off with many of the funniest moments. Evan Peters emits wit as quick as his feet, striking up a comedic dynamic with the dry banter of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Listen out for Jim Croce’s “If I Could Save Time in a Bottle” and look out for the ensuing scene; intuitive excellence.

Despite a small helping of problems associated with narrative, X-Men: Days of Future Past manages to leave a lasting impression on us, an emotional impact bred by the people involved and the morals that they relay. This has a special aura surrounding it, a magnitude that usurps its few flaws. Regardless, we ought to applaud scoping aim, particularly when the aimer just about hits bullseye.

I suspect Singer and company have been practising their darts.

X-Men Days of Future Past - James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox