When we first catch up with the titular X-Man (Hugh Jackman) in James Mangold's The Wolverine, all shreds of Logan, his civilian persona, have apparently ceased to be. With a matted beard that's grown as wild as his shaggy, shoulder-length hair, Wolverine is in full feral mode, living outdoors in some wintery American wilderness, and sharing the woods with beasts like a massive CG grizzly bear, who pees submissively when his two-legged neighbor saunters by. Harboring heaps of guilt over the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whom he killed for the greater good in X-Men: The Last Stand, and who regularly haunts his dreams this time around, the clawed mutant has reverted to animalism, but replaced his rage with regret. He's all set to be tamed, and from the moment scarlet-haired Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a Japanese assassin, intercepts him at a bar, that's precisely what this movie, the sixth in the chronologically unruly X-Men franchise, aims to do.
An associate of dying bigwig Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), an ex-soldier Wolverine saved when the U.S. bombed Nagasaki, Yukio is tasked to bring our reluctant hero to Tokyo, where Yashida asks him to relinquish and pass along his powers of healing and immortality. Made possible by a suspicious Big Pharma-like company from America, and an even more suspicious doctor type (Svetlana Khodchenkova), the process is one Yashida thinks will appeal to the tormented Wolverine, whom Yashida calls a Ronin ("a samurai without a master"). But as anyone with even a passing knowledge of the X-Universe knows, taming this beast is about as likely as taking Cyclops to the optometrist, and the whole notion of blunting his powers basically fuels criticism of the film. Does it even need to be said that, as a brand-name, would-be blockbuster released in the summer of 2013, The Wolverine could have used a bit more sharpening?
Written by Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, and Christopher McQuarrie, the latter of whom already dropped the ball this year with Jack the Giant Slayer, The Wolverine suffers most from its plot's eventual lack of risk, as the movie proceeds to include a contrived romance, a pile-up of double-crosses, a lengthy villain's manifesto, martyrdom, and fisticuffs with an end-level monster—because, well, that's what happens in the finales of Hollywood flicks these days. Luckily, the film establishes an initial brute strength and uniqueness that work wonders to sustain its merit. Whereas Gavin Hood's horrid X-Men Origins: Wolverine included foes like Sabretooth, The Wolverine almost entirely isolates its star from his popular cohorts and surroundings, and the benefits are immediately palpable. The first act is a largely muted character study, and when events shift over to Japan, which is presented with a refreshing lack of cultural condescension, there's an invaluable appeal to the exotic locale—a colorful, history-laden, and architecturally varied realm that, for Wolverine, feels both new and natural.
Just as the gruff character soon adopts a sleeker-than-ever hairstyle (he's forcibly groomed upon arriving at Yashida's home), The Wolverine boasts the slickest set pieces ever helmed by Mangold. The director knows just when to ditch the dolly, when to have slain thugs fall into the camera, and when to fluidly follow a fighter as he (or she) leaps across buildings and vehicles (one sequence on the roof of a speeding train is at once ridiculous and spectacular). Furthermore, in what should help the film please martial-arts fans while sating comic-book nuts, the trained actors on screen (including Fukushima and Hiroyuki Sanada) engage in breathless, rivetingly captured swordplay, and always register as bona fide warriors. The same goes for Jackman, whose physical dedication to this role is its own form of heroism. His veins bulging like exposed tree roots, the actor aptly looks almost the same as he did 13 years ago, when Wolverine first met Jean and the gang. The uncanny visual continuity only further grounds the character, and while he goes through motions typical to this genre's protagonists (moral dilemma, emasculation-by-nemesis, acceptance of power, Christ-like exultation), they aren't often glaring deficits. The Wolverine may be the year's best superhero movie because, for a sufficient amount of time, it doesn't feel like a superhero movie at all.