Remember X-Men Origins: Wolverine? Good, because neither does The Wolverine.
Four years after everyone's favorite adamantium-clawed mutant sputtered a bit (ok, a lot) with his first solo film, Wolverine gets a worthy do-over, courtesy of director James Mangold, a frighteningly intense Hugh Jackman, a talented supporting cast, and with a screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank.
Welcome back, Wolverine. We've missed you.
The Wolverine manages to find a nice balance between the Japanese saga told in the 1982 Chris Claremont/Frank Miller comics and the established film universe. Opening with a flashback of Logan as a POW in a Nagasaki prison camp during World War II, he saves a young soldier named Yashida (Ken Yamamura) from a nuclear blast, suffering and healing from gruesome injuries in the process. In the present day, Logan is a mess. Distraught, and haunted by nightmares since having to kill Jean Grey during the events at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand, he's gone all scraggly and has retreated to the mountains of Canada. He's friends with a bear, but even that ends badly.
But then he's visited by a mysterious woman called Yukio (Rila Fukushima). She's been tasked to bring Wolverine to Japan to visit his old friend Yashida, who became a successful businessman after his life was saved at Nagasaki, but who is now dying of cancer. Yashida doesn't want to die. Obsessed with Logan's healing factor, he claims that a way has been found to transfer the mutation to him, which would save his life and release Logan from his own long-suffering, seemingly endless lifespan.
Logan may be depressed, but he's not interested in giving up his healing factor. Does he lose it anyway? Yup. And of course there are more sinister things at work - like Yashida's scheming son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), who's not happy at all that the family business will be left to his daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) instead of him, and there are dealings with the Yakuza and other unsavory characters from the Japanese criminal underworld. Then there's Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the scientist who's as venomous as her name.
The trailers we've seen for The Wolverine have been a bit misleading. Yes, there are some really cool action sequences, like a fight scene on a bullet train, and Wolverine taking on scores of assassins at a funeral. But there are long stretches of good story in here, and the movie plays less like a traditional superhero movie and more like a crime drama that just happens to have a guy with claws who heals really fast in the middle of everything.
This is definitely Hugh Jackman's best performance as Wolverine since the first two X-Men movies (and even his First Class cameo). Where in Origins, he seemed far too polite, this Wolverine swears, has no patience for anyone, gets into fights, and he really, really doesn't want to be forced to take a bath. For the first time, we see what it's like for him to deal with the terrible losses that come with living such a long life. And after he's deprived of his healing factor, we get to see him deal with a different kind of fear for the first time.
Much credit also has to go to the women in this film, particularly Rila Fukushima and Tao Okamoto, who are both making their film debut. Fukushima is quite a badass, and a sidekick for Wolverine that I'd love to see in more X-Men films. Wolverine spends a good part of the film on the run with Okamoto's Mariko, and they not only have great chemistry in their scenes together, which are both touching and at times actually very funny. Famke Janssen also returns in flashback form as Jean Grey, mainly to torment Wolverine, but it's nice to have her back in this series too.
There's also Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper, who at times seems the odd one out. She's the catalyst for a lot of the things that go wrong for Wolverine in the movie, but at times her character seems a bit out of place. At least, a lot more comic-bookish than any of the other elements of the film, especially in the third act, which has the biggest CGI-action spectacle of the film. I've heard complaints that the final act goes a bit overboard in that respect, but I enjoyed it, since it had a few surprises that I wasn't expecting (and not the obvious one).
Major props have to go James Mangold, who picked our flailing Wolverine solo film series back up from adamantium bullets and painfully-obvious CGI claws, and gave us just a beautifully-shot Wolverine movie that respects both the comics and the films. The Wolverine is nastier and darker than what we've seen in the previous X-Men films, it's violent without being gratuitous about it, there's a bit of romance, it's funny as hell, and has characters that we actually care about - particularly Wolverine himself.
I can't end this review without mentioning the infamous end-credits scene. Yes, it's awesome. No, I'm not giving away what it is. Just make sure you don't miss it. Going by the audience response I saw (and participated in) last night to The Wolverine, and their reaction at seeing what's to come...let's just say next summer...there is an overall sense that the X-Men movies are finally back, and that is an amazing thing.