Jackman claws his way through another superhero outing

Published: Friday, Aug. 2, 2013 10:36 a.m. CDT

At this point in the current summer of blockbuster doom, “The Wolverine” will be exceeding expectations if it doesn’t tank right out of the box. And it may not. The movie is a serviceable superhero exercise that does a number of things right. Most wisely, it sets its story in the immediate aftermath of the 2006 film “X-Men: The Last Stand,” happily ignoring the existence of the piffling 2009 film “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” In “The Last Stand,” you’ll recall, the grumpy mutant Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) was forced to terminate the love of his life, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), after she succumbed to the dark side of her own mutant nature. Now we find him sleeping alfresco in the Canadian woods and marinating his sorrow in an ocean of whiskey. Soon enough, though, super-duty once again calls.

Working from a script by Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, director James Mangold (“Walk the Line”) attempts to expand upon the genre format — for a while, anyway — with infusions of corporate intrigue, Bondian exoticism and occasional interludes of quieter narrative downtime. The movie opens in Nagasaki in 1945, in the midst of the American A-bomb drop, with prisoner of war Logan outrunning the mighty blast (a ridiculous impossibility, as the late Roger Ebert often pointed out) and saving the life of a Japanese soldier named Yashida, who is most grateful.

Jumping forward to the Canadian woods, we observe some business with a bear and then a bracingly nasty barroom smack-down, in which Logan unsheathes his fearsome knuckle blades and then is suddenly extricated by a red-haired katana-wielding Japanese woman, named Yukio (Rila Fukushima). She has a plane waiting to fly them both to Tokyo, where the aged Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi) is waiting. Yashida has become a wealthy electronics titan; he’s now dying, and he wants to bid Logan an appreciative farewell. He also offers the miserable mutant a technological escape from his immortality — the chance to live a normal life and eventually die a normal death. As we soon learn, what he really wants is to siphon off Logan’s undying powers for his own life-extending purposes.

Unfortunately, Logan rejects this offer, and the plot quickly becomes overcomplicated. Yashida has left his company and his vast fortune to his granddaughter, Mariko (Japanese fashion model Tao Okamoto), bypassing her father (Hiroyuki Sanada), who is understandably steamed. There’s also a crooked government minister to whom Mariko has been promised in an arranged marriage. Then there’s a murderous assault by a gang of Yakuza hit men, and up on the picturesque rooftops, there’s a scampering detachment of stealthy ninjas. (The presence of these black-clad warriors, along with two complementary Japanese beauties and a scene in which Logan is scrubbed in a tub by a team of smiling women, unabashedly recalls the old Bond film “You Only Live Twice.”) In an added touch of overkill, there are also recurring dream visits by the departed Jean Grey, who is lonely in the afterlife and wants Logan to join her. (“You put me here,” she whines.)

The demands of the superhero genre can’t be entirely denied, so we also have a mutant villain, called Viper (bland Svetlana Khodchenkova), whose powers include a super-long tongue, the ability to melt a man’s face off with the gentlest of breaths and great skill in effecting slinky costume changes. She also controls a towering samurai robot, whose awakening drags the picture down into a very long sequence of familiar slam-bang uproar.

Jackman, in a slight mutation of his old box-top haircut and eccentric beardage, brings his usual serious-actor commitment to both flesh-ripping Wolverine fury and Logan’s frequent bouts of melancholy brooding. And much of the movie’s action is imaginatively staged — especially a hair-raising battle atop a speeding bullet train, which puts most other cinematic train-top battles in the shade.

But Mangold’s commendable determination to warm the story with an emotional glow sometimes slows the picture down, especially at the beginning; and his eventual surrender to the imperatives of superhero action makes a hash of the ending. It’s a better picture than most of the other big-budget junk that’s preceded it this year, and that could be enough to keep it afloat at the box office. We’ll soon see.

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