“This isn’t going to end well!” says a ghostly Jean Grey during one of the nocturnal visits she makes to Hugh Jackman’s subconscious in this latest outing for his hairy, claw-baring X-Man. Ironic, then, that the ending to Marvel’s sixth mutant opus – a terrific final flourish which tantalisingly trails next year’s feverishly anticipated Days Of Future Past – should end up being one of its strongest, and most memorable elements.
No, it’s the middle that’s at fault in James Mangold’s stab at taking the X-Men franchise eastwards – an unevenly paced, almost too-faithful ode to the comics it’s inspired by that temporarily turns the title character into a snarlier version of the late Alan Whicker as he journeys to modern Japan.
It’s a safe bet that fans of the celebrated ’80s comic arc from which the story derives will lap up every dojo, kimono and nugget of philosophical wisdom. Come to the material fresh, though, and you may find yourself at times counting the minutes until the next duel, scrap or punch-up.
Rest assured, there are plenty of all three in a post-Last Stand adventure that, after a preliminary backflash to 1945, finds Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine as a bearded mountain man still bummed about having to off Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) on Alcatraz Island. Yet there is an awful lot of downtime too – enough of it, in fact, to make you wonder if the power-sapping toxins Wolvie is slipped at an early stage in the narrative have somehow worked their magic on the movie as a whole.
It’s strange to complain of inertia in a film that kicks off with a stunning recreation of the Nagasaki bombing, a ferocious armageddon that leaves our indestructible hero looking as crispy as a Christmas turkey that’s been left in the oven till Easter. No sooner have he and the young Japanese soldier he shields walked away from the blast, however, than we get Jackman mooching around the Yukon with a urinating CG bear – a jarring tonal shift that gives us our first (t)inkling this is going to be a stop-start ride.
When Hugh’s furry pal is poisoned by some douchebag hunters, he heads straight to the local hostelry to dispense some instant justice. Before he can go the full berserker, though, he’s stopped by a crimson-haired lady (Rila Fukushima) with a shiny katana and an intriguing proposition: come to Tokyo and say sayonara to the guy whose life he saved 60 years ago and who might just have an antidote to his regeneration gene. Given his fear of flying and his grumpy disposition, it is a mystery why Logan would accept such an opaque proposal.
But accept he does, to find himself immediately caught up in a family squabble involving his old acquaintance (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), the dying tycoon’s fetching granddaughter (Tao Okamoto) and two warring tribes of ninjas and Yakuza.
With Wolverine intervening at a bullet-strewn funeral, dispensing with goons on the roof of a 300 mph bullet train and going toe to toe with a giant Silver Samurai, a beefed-up and always watchable Jackman is undoubtedly put through his paces. (Fittingly for a man last seen in Movie 43 sporting a pair of prosthetic testes on his neck he also gets to crack the odd funny, among them a line that will ring bells with fans of vintage Bond).
It is difficult to feel, alas, that there’s anything particularly at stake, not least when it comes to our hero’s romantic life. When revealed, meanwhile, the Silver Samurai is a clunky letdown, especially once we learn the secrets of the suit.
Yet though it doesn’t have the vibrant wit and zip of an Avengers Assemble, or the allegorical grandeur of a Dark Knight, it’s a step up from the garbled silliness of Wolverine’s first solo outing. Unlike Origins, the storytelling is more sharply focused here, ignited by flashes of stylised superheroism.
True, there’s probably one too many scenes of steel striking adamantium. But the 3D-assisted action is never less than spectacular, notably during a Kurosawa-flavoured ambush that sees Wolverine turned by arrows into a mutant pin-cushion. Another plus is Svetlana Khodchenkova (from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) as a sexy vixen who spits venom, licks like a lizard and casually discards her skin like last season’s fashions.
That she’s one of only a handful of characters (including our protagonist) with mutated DNA suggests Mangold and co have maybe scaled things back too far from what audiences want from an X-movie. There again, like (the) Wolverine himself, this marches to its own drum, and while it may divide the non-fans from the faithful, the latter will applaud its efforts to deepen and champion their hirsute hero.
The good news? An improvement on Origins. The bad? Not as big an improvement as you were hoping for: perfectly decent, but ponderous too.
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