Ever since the character was introduced to comics in 1974 Wolverine has been one of Marvel's most popular superheroes. He's an angry Canadian mutant with a metal skeleton, rapid healing powers, apparent immortality and a pair of retractable metal claws that shoot out from his fists when he's really upset. When 20th Century Fox brought the Marvel comic X-Men to the big screen in 2000, it rather predictably put Wolverine - played by Australian actor Hugh Jackman - front and centre. The character continued on screen in X-Men 2 (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and even made a short cameo in X-Men: First Class (2011). In between those last two Fox even launched Wolverine into his own solo franchise with the prequel X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). That was an unremittingly dreadful movie, plagued by a confusing plot that contradicted much of the content of the films it purported to precede, and cursed by silly dialogue and unengaging characters.
Despite its visible, and often risible, faults, X-Men Origins: Wolverine made a fairly decent profit: $373 million worldwide on a $150 million budget. As a result Wolverine returned to the big screen this year with a second solo outing. This time, perhaps in an attempt to separate itself from its poorly reviewed predecessor, the film is simply titled The Wolverine. It boasts a new director in the shape of James Mangold (Copland, Walk the Line) and new writers in the shape of Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) and Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report). It is also, I think crucially, not another prequel. The Wolverine is the first film to be set after X-Men: The Last Stand, and finally deals with some of the emotional repercussions of that movie.
The film picks the story up with a heartbroken Logan hiding out in a forest somewhere in North America. When he's awake he wanders the woods and collects supplies from a nearby logging town. When he's asleep he dreams of Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), the super-powered psychic whom he loved and killed back in The Last Stand. Soon he's collected by Yukio, a young Japanese woman, who takes him to Tokyo to meet with Yashida - a billionaire industrialist whose life Logan saved in 1945.
The storyline for The Wolverine is based very loosely on Wolverine, the four-issue comic mini-series by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. That was Wolverine's first solo title, and while the plot varies immensely, this new film constantly bounces off that comic book in a way that will delight some fans and possibly infuriate some others. The story told here is, for the most part, a great one. It's only downfall is potentially in its climax, where the story goes from a relatively grounded chase film to an over-the-top science fiction movie. There aren't many films that can begin with a heartbroken soldier hiding in the woods and end with a clawed super-mutant having a fistfight with a giant robot samurai, but The Wolverine attempts it. It's a transition that Mangold almost manages, but sadly I did find myself a little incredulous during the film's final minutes. It also suffers from... I hesitate to say 'twist', so let's just say there are plot development that come as an immense surprise to the characters but the drumming of fingers and rolling of eyes from the audience.
Hugh Jackman has always delivered a strong performance as Wolverine, and this film is possibly his best performance yet. That shouldn't be a surprise: not only has he got better material here, he's also been playing the part for 13 years. That's actually the one problem about his performance: he's been doing this for 13 years, and like Highlander star Christopher Lambert it's beginning the stretch credulity that his character is ageless and immortal. Jackman was 32 years old when he first played Wolverine. Now he's 45. While I appreciate his performance immensely, I do think it may be time for 20th Century Fox to either retire the character or recast the actor.
The rest of the cast are excellent. I particularly enjoyed Rila Fukashima as Yukio, the psychic martial artist who collects Wolverine and who assists him throughout. Given that this film forms part of a broader X-Men movie franchise, I really hope we see Yukio again. Also solid is Tao Okamoto as Mariko Yashida, Wolverine's love-interest. What's particularly impressive is that neither Okamoto nor Fukashima have performed in a feature film before - both are models, and while I'd usually harshly criticise the casting of models over actors in this case both of them are good enough for me to forgive the choice.
This isn't a stellar film, but it is a very strong one. Some fans of the earlier X-Men films may find its lengthy scenes of conversation and introspection a bit hard to sit through; certainly it has the least amount of action out of all of the X-films to date. After the risible X-Men Origins debacle, however, and the amiable but confused X-Men: First Class, it's something of a return to form. Not the best X-Men film then, but certainly the third best - and that's no bad thing.