Just as comic-book movie fatigue was starting to settle in, along comes The Wolverine to revive a moribund summer of superheroes. There was no reason to expect much from Hugh Jackman’s sixth reprisal of the clawed mutant Logan: His previous solo outing ( X-Men Origins: Wolverine) was cartoonish in all the worst ways, and production on this follow-up stalled for more than a year after various directors circled, then left the project. James Mangold ( Walk the Line) ended up with the gig, but his previous attempt at an action picture (the disastrous Knight and Day) made him a curious choice to take over one of Marvel Comics’ most iconic characters.
But Mangold turns out to have been a perfect choice, since The Wolverine, which was inspired by the famed story arc from the comic-book miniseries written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Frank Miller, is much more of a character piece than usual for the genre. The story picks up directly after the end of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, in which the hero was forced to kill his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) in order to save the world. The X-Men have disbanded, and Wolverine has pulled a Grizzly Adams and retreated to the wilderness to mourn his loss. Then an acquaintance from his past beckons from Japan, so he travels overseas for a face-to-face.
The stranger-in-a-strange-land setting immediately distinguishes The Wolverine from all other comic-book pictures, thrusting the protagonist into a complicated power struggle involving three generations of a wealthy family. There are cultural barriers Logan must learn to navigate, and there are customs and rituals that go directly against his savage, animalistic instincts. Ninjas, samurais and yakuza are all part of the mix, along with a mysterious blond (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who may be a fellow mutant in disguise. The movie has several big setpieces, including a prolonged fight atop a bullet train hurtling at 300 miles per hour that is furiously exciting, and another confrontation against enemies wielding bows and arrows that is strongly evocative of Akira Kurosawa. The picture forces its hero to learn new ways of defending himself and ups the stakes by robbing him of his ability to heal himself, rendering him more vulnerable than ever before.
The action in The Wolverine is so well choreographed and cut together, it leaves you thinking Mangold was simply off his game when he made Knight and Day. But the script, which was co-written by Scott Frank ( Out of Sight, Get Shorty), has been carefully designed to engage you on a purely narrative level, too, something this genre often neglects. There is a multitude of characters surrounding Logan whose true intentions are gradually revealed: The red-haired Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who looks like a living anime character and offers to serve as his bodyguard; the suicidal Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who is oppressed by her abusive father and is being forced to marry a politician; and her former flame Harada (Will Yun Lee), who has sworn to protect Mariko’s life, even if he’s not allowed to have much contact with her.
In most superhero movies, this sort of stuff often plays like filler to pass the time between bursts of special effects. But in The Wolverine, the filmmakers take the time to allow you to invest in these characters, which makes the bursts of action all the more thrilling. Even though the movie resorts to comic-book cliches for the big climax, The Wolverine still feels like a refreshing change of pace. Even the requisite mid-end credits stinger is terrific, causing a preview audience to burst out with loud cheers and applause. The post-conversion 3D is more distracting than anything else, but the rest of this surprisingly fun entertainment is as sharp as the hero’s claws.