The Wolverine James Mangold

The Wolverine James Mangold
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After the creative fiasco of the character's last solo outing, anything involving the indestructible Canuck with adamantium claws would have to be an improvement.

While it's not the masterpiece optimistic fans were hoping for when it was originally announced that Darren Aronofsky would be directing a version of Chris Claremount and Frank Miller's beloved story arc about Logan's time in Japan, James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) has delivered a top-tier X film. Not only is The Wolverine far better than X-Men: Origins, it also easily surpasses all entries save the stellar middle chapter of the original trilogy, even nipping at the heels of Matthew Vaughn's effective 2011 prequel.

Set shortly after the events of X-Men 3: The Last Stand, this proper spin-off picks up with a drunk and dishevelled Logan living in a cave, mourning the death of Jean Grey while pickling his sense of honour in guilt and self-pity. Since this is a relatively faithful adaptation of Claremount's excellent modern samurai story, honour is integral to the tale.

Pining for death and haunted by dreams of Jean (Famke Janssen returns in spectral form), Logan has given up on heroics and his calling as a warrior and protector. We see the first hint of the old beast resurface in a great scene translated directly from the comics where the grieving near-immortal confronts a cocky hunter who cowardly and ineptly shoots a bear with an illegally poisoned arrow. How unsportsmanlike, and dangerous. Guess what happens when you horribly wound, but don't kill a deadly animal, be it a bear or feral superhero?

Mangold sets up metaphorical parallels all over the film. Most of these unvoiced philosophical bon mots are simple, but the approach is an effective and appropriate marriage of Zen and pulp sensibilities. Once our miserable hero is whisked away to Japan by the mysterious young envoy of a wealthy technology magnate, the story takes a course familiar to comic fans.

Yukio (Rila Fukushima) brings Logan to meet with the dying Lord Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) in Japan, where the weepy brawler ends up forced into action by a Yakuza plot to kidnap his old friend's granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). To amp up the drama, Wolverine's trusty healing factor is compromised, making the gruff warrior vulnerable. Couple that with his near-legendary status in her family history (he saved Yashida from "the Bomb" in WWII) and Logan is essentially emotional Viagra for the young Japanese woman.

The Wolverine chooses character over spectacle more often than not, concentrating on the burgeoning romance between Logan and Mariko, and our hero's search for renewed purpose rather than attempting to jam in a plethora of mutant dust-ups and sequences rampant with destruction — the inclusion of a beefed-up Silver Samurai is one of the few visual monstrosities in the film, and it's essential.

The well-shot and choreographed action is of a more intimate nature than the majority of this summer's genre films, seldom inflating beyond what's necessary to entertain while advancing the plot. Not all is roses however: Svetlana Khodchenkova's reading of Viper makes the venom-tongued villain feel like the kin of Joel Schumacher's Poison Ivy and, despite good use of Wolverine's terse sense of humour, the dialogue could use sharpening.

At just over two hours, The Wolverine feels like it needs a little more time to flesh out a few characters and subplots. Once Mariko enters the picture, Yukio is largely relegated to sidekick status and her motivations, though hinted at, are not satisfactorily explored. An unexpectedly redemptive conclusion also feels like the start of a new chapter more than the end of an emotionally tumultuous journey.

Minor quibbles aside and modest expectations aligned, the West meets East film noir tone is a solid fit for the material, elevating the picture without transcending the genre. Bring on the unrated director's cut though; with violence this brutal, it's silly that only mutants are allowed to bleed. (Fox)