Thursday, August 8, 2013

Call of the Mild: The Wolverine

The first time Hugh Jackman played Wolverine, in his first American movie (and only the third movie his career), Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000), a star was born. The character of Wolverine an endlessly regenerating Canadian wild man who can sprout razor-sharp claws from his knuckles, and who has a three-note emotional range, brooding, seething, and full explosion was a product of a period in the mid-70s when Marvel comics writers were trying to adjust to a changing pop culture landscape in which movie stars like Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were playing judge-jury-and-executioner types as righteous heroes. Comics fan were hungry to see him on the screen, but comics fans and lots of other people are always hungry to see things on screen that would probably look pretty silly if almost anyone tried to create a reasonably plausible, live-action version of them.

Somehow, Jackman managed to make everything about Logan that’s the superhero equivalent of his slave name, what people call Wolverine when he’s not bounding through the air eviscerating people seem both believable and attractive, from the redwood-sized chip on his shoulder to his inherent nobility to his lupine-rockabilly hairdo and facial hair. It was the kind of performance that makes you eager to see what else the actor can do, and at the same time makes you want to know when you can see him play that character again. The Wolverine, directed by James Mangold from a script written by Mark Bombeck, Scott Frank, and the uncredited Christopher McQuarrie, marks Jackman’s fifth time out wearing Logan’s spiked claws and gelled hair horns. He was 31 when X-Men came out, and he’s 44 now, which, given the fact that Logan doesn’t visibly age, might have been a problem at an earlier point in our history. It’s a funny thing that people, or at least some movie stars, age so much slower than they used to, but it’s also a lucky thing, since it now takes so many lifetimes to get a movie made. In four fewer years that it’s taken Jackman to play Wolverine in three X-Men movies and two solo outings, Sean Connery had played James Bond five times, walked away from the franchise, come back to play him one more time, and walked away again.

Tao Okamoto and Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine
The peculiar thing is how modest a screen image Jackson has established when he’s not playing Wolverine. There’s certainly a precedent for it: Harrison Ford is a star whenever he appears on screen and is addressed as either “Han” or “Indy,” but take that away from him, and he’s just a mysteriously pissed-off-looking guy who seems to want to get his lines out of his mouth and hear the director yell “Cut!” before IKEA closes. Jackman goes in the opposite direction: when he’s not playing Wolverine, he’s usually perfectly charming, but often lightweight and colorless and usually forgettable. He seems like a song and dance man waiting for the music to start and in another compartment of his career, Jackman has been celebrated for his stage performances as Peter Allen and as Curly in Oklahoma! (I haven’t seen his sole performance in a movie musical, as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. I know that the movie itself was a prestigious winter release that had most movie critics grappling with such thorny questions as “How much difference does it make to a movie musical if the singing is done live?” and “What the fuck is going on with all the hating on Anne Hathaway? Should these people have some sense beaten into them with leaded pool cues, or what?” But the only question I needed answered was, “This is that unlistenable piece of Andrew Lloyd Webber shit, right”) Right off the bat, Jackman was clearly talented and highly skilled. Which isn’t anything anyone ever said about Sean Connery in the first few Bond movies, he got by on sheer animal presence, and the nine years that the role of 007 guaranteed that his star would stay aloft count as one of the most extensive and expensive cases of on-the-job-training in the history of movies. But by the time he hung up his Walther PPK for good, Connery had given very impressive performances, in very different roles, in such films as Sidney Lumet’s The Hill, Irvin Kershner’s A Fine Madness, Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires, and Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Red Tent.

The mystery of Hugh Jackman may only continue to deepen, if that’s the word for it, with every non-Wolverine role he plays. In the meantime, The Wolverine is a better excuse to savor the character’s surly charms than the solo Origins movie or the third X-Men movie, both of which were dogs. The new movie has its roots in a 1982 comic-book miniseries written by Chris Claremont and penciled by Frank Miller, which had a Japanese setting and established the theme that Logan is a modern ronin. (The idea of the lonely American action lug as a “samurai without a master” had a bit less moss on it in 1982 than it does today.) The movie opens in 1945, when Logan, a prisoner of war, uses his indestructible body to shield a Japanese soldier from the Nagasaki blast. Some sixty years later, Logan spends his days bopping around the Yukon, where an impish Japanese mutant warrior (Rita Fukushima) interrupts him as he’s about to exact revenge for a stupidly-butchered CGI bear. She’s come to summon him to Tokyo, where the solider he saved, now an obscenely rich and powerful tycoon, is dying of cancer. The tycoon has funded technology that will enable Logan to transfer his “healing power,” so that the old man can be cured, and Logan can age and die a normal death. The tycoon knows that mortality is what Logan covets most, and when Logan turns him down, he says it’s because the old man doesn’t grasp the full horror of what he’d be getting. Personally, when I was a kid, I never understood why fictional characters always seem to regard immortality and eternal good health as a curse to be avoided, and with every passing minute, I understand it less.

Svetlana Khodchenkova and Hugh Jackman
The Wolverine, which turns into a series of battles between Wolverine and armies of yakuza, Wolverine and armies of ninja assassins, Wolverine and a big-ass cyborg, Wolverine and a very disappointing supervillain named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who kills people by breathing on them or licking them with her prehensile tongue, cost $120 million and runs more than two hours. In the context of current summer action movies with blockbuster ambitions, it’s an intimate character piece. Jackman and Rita Fukushima give it some dynamism and idiosyncrasy, and both the Japanese locations and Tao Okamoto, who plays an imperiled heiress, are very easy on the eyes. I could work up more enthusiasm for it if the action itself counted for something if it were shot to knock your socks off and were choreographed as a physical expression of the characters, who are conceived to reveal themselves through the way they move and fight.

When people complain about the smooth impersonal dullness of big genre movies nowadays, they shift much of the blame to an overreliance on CGI and it’s true that the grizzly whose honor Wolverine defends might as well be wearing a squashed-looking hat and asking Wolverine if he’s seen any pick-a-nick baskets. But except for a fight atop a bullet train that looks as if it were special-ordered to top the train scene in Skyfall and an image of a fish-hooked Wolverine that must be the director’s homage to Throne of Blood, the action scenes in this movie look as if they’re something the director just felt he had to get through, so he could get to do some other movie that isn’t there. They don’t have the precision and urgency that any number of old-school B-movie directors might have brought to them, let alone the kind of rapturous abandon that a Sam Peckinpah could apply to a violent fight.

James Mangold broke into movies with a portentious, minimalist character study called Heavy, followed that up with a by-the-numbers, post-Scorsese fake “serious” crime drama called Copland, and has since made the Winona Ryder Oscar-bait picture Girl, Interrupted, the romantic comedy Kate and Leopold (with Hugh Jackman), the conceptually twisty murder thriller Identity, the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, the western remake 3:10 to Yuma, the Tom Cruise action flop Knight and Day… I don’t really know why he got into filmmaking, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t have anything to do with a strong desire to locate the poetry of men testing each other in hand-to-hand combat. Based on his résumé, he has no business working on this kind of material, but who does a Hollywood studio hire to shoot an action movie these days? Someone whose two-person mumblecore drama did well on the festival circuit, or someone who’s worked on Mike and Molly who’s admired for his work ethic? In any case, The Wolverine ends with Logan regaining his sense of mission, and then, in what’s become traditional for Marvel comic-book movies, it really ends, during an intermission in the closing credits, with the promise of a return for Logan, possibly as part of an X-Men reunion. All I really know about it is that it’ll probably be the audience’s next change to have a good time watching Hugh Jackman unless, of course, some crazed genius decides to make a movie version of an actual good musical.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

1 comment:

  1. "In the context of current summer action movies with blockbuster ambitions, it’s an intimate character piece."

    Nicely put.