“The X-ceptional Spinoff Wolverine Deserves”

“The Wolverine”
Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen
Directed by James Mangold

X-Men fans, rejoice! Four years after everyone’s favorite Marvel mutant got the shaft with his first attempt at a spinoff movie – 2009’s mediocre “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” – director James Mangold and screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank finally get it right (and then some) with “The Wolverine.” That’s right, this is “The Wolverine” – the superior stand-alone effort that the last one should have been, which also succeeds as a smart, exciting, engaging and superbly-crafted action thriller that even non-X-Men fans will enjoy.

It also represents a milestone for Hugh Jackman, who has now played Wolverine (a.k.a. Logan) a whopping six times – a record for an actor to play the same comic book-based character. Of course, that includes his awesome two-word cameo in 2011’s reboot “X-Men: First Class,” but his devotion to the fan favorite that made him a star is impressive, as he’s already set to wield his adamantium claws for the seventh time in next year’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Talk about an actor owning his character.

Based on the landmark four-issue mini-series from 1982 by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, “The Wolverine” takes Logan to Japan for his first time since World War II, where he saved a Japanese soldier from the atomic blast at Nagasaki. Now that person, a wealthy business tycoon, has summoned Logan to make him an offer he can’t refuse: a chance to end his immortality and live the rest of life as a normal human being. But that gift will come at a price, as Logan gets caught up in a web of deceit and betrayal in a culture that’s rife with deep tradition and codes of honor.

Though Darren Aronofsky was originally set to direct “The Wolverine” as his follow-up to “Black Swan,” it turns out that the film couldn’t be in better hands with James Mangold. With a proven track record in a wide variety of different genres that include a cop drama (1997’s “Copland”), a love story (2005’s “Walk the Line”) and a western (2007’s “3:10 to Yuma”), Mangold has crafted a very entertaining two hour and six minute film that works just as well as a deep love story as it does as a samurai-inspired action adventure.

“The Wolverine” literally starts with a bang and delivers from start to finish on two fronts: by delving deeper into Logan’s unexplored character than any of the previous X-movies, and by breaking so far from the conventional comic book-based format that it doesn’t even feel like a superhero movie (and I mean that in a good way). Of course, the martial arts-inspired fights and action scenes are exciting, especially during one thrilling set piece where Logan fends off his adversaries while riding atop a bullet train that’s speeding through Tokyo at more than 200-miles-per-hour.

After six movies, it’s safe to say that Hugh Jackman has Wolverine down pat. He also looks more ripped now than he did 13 years ago, when he played the character for the first time. Hard to believe that this is the same actor who just gave an incredible Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s musical, “Les Miserables,” but Jackman takes Wolverine to a deeper emotional level by doing away with the cigar-chomping one-liners that became a bit campy in later “X-Men” installments. Instead, the new film finds him grappling with guilt over the death of his long-lost love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), matching wits with his new sidekick Yukio (Rila Fukushima) and being drawn to Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the beautiful heiress he is trying to protect.

But if Logan starts the movie deep in the throes of an existential identity crisis, all bets are off when he finally embraces who he is – and just in time for a surprise bonus scene that easily ranks as the best since the first “Iron Man” in 2008. It’s one that’s sure to get fans pumped for next summer’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which also marks the welcome return of director Bryan Singer to the X-fold for the first time since 2003’s “X2: X-Men United.” So if fans were looking for another reason to rejoice, then behold: “X” once again marks the spot.

-Scott Mantz