You can take away his powers and pump him full of lead, but you just can't keep a good mutant down. Director James Mangold and screenwriters Scott Frank and Mark Bomback prove this point with style and energy to spare in the X-Men spin-off The Wolverine, a rare comic-to-film adaptation that doesn't sacrifice substance for the sake of thrilling action.
The story begins in Nagasaki. As a B-29 bomber appears in the sky and air-raid sirens howl, panicked Japanese troops begin committing ritual seppuku. Terrified, yet unwilling to sacrifice his own life, young soldier Yashida takes cover in a heavily fortified prison pit containing the immortal mutant Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who shields him from a deadly blast. Decades later, Wolverine has sworn off violence after he was forced to kill his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). He's confronting a hunter who has been using illegal, poison-tipped arrows when the sword-wielding Yukio (Rila Fukushima) comes to his aid, and summons him to Japan at the behest of the dying Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), now the head of Japan's largest and most powerful tech giant. Just hours before passing away, Yashida implores Wolverine to protect his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamato), whom he has personally chosen to take over the family business -- much to the chagrin of her plotting father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada). When the yakuza attempt a high-profile kidnapping of Mariko during Yashida's funeral, Wolverine comes to her rescue, and receives some much needed help from enigmatic ninja Harada (Will Yun Lee). Narrowly escaping with their lives, Wolverine and Mariko go into hiding with the yakuza and ruthless mutant Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) hot on their trail. But the battle is far from over, and with Wolverine's healing powers mysteriously diminished, he may not be able to protect Mariko for long.
When X-Men Origins: Wolverine was unleashed onto screens back in 2009, 20th Century Fox was in an uproar over a leaked version of the film featuring unfinished effects, and fans were largely underwhelmed -- not just because of the pedestrian storytelling and action on display, but also the blatant mishandling of Deadpool, a cult character known casually as the "merc with a mouth." In The Wolverine, Mangold, Frank, and Bomback are operating on a whole different level. Taking place after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand and largely drawing inspiration from the popular 1980s Marvel miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, Frank and Bomback's script folds complex themes of mortality, family, honor, and forgiveness into a kinetic, sci-fi-tinged adventure that ups the ante with each subsequent action scene -- and does a good job at keeping us guessing about key character motivations throughout, providing a fairly straightforward story with a satisfying air of neo-noir mystery.
The distinctive Japanese setting gives this one-off a flavor all its own, even as the characters and conflict tie in seamlessly with the universe set up by Bryan Singer 13 years ago (Jackman must have set some sort of record for playing the same comic-book superhero in so many films over such an extended period), resulting in a film that satisfies our craving for mayhem without insulting our intelligence. A battle atop a speeding bullet train successfully redefines a cinematic trope that grew stale decades ago, and just when the story seems to run off the rails in the final reel, Mangold and company manage to pull it back from the brink, bringing the story full circle with a tragic denouement.
By now it would be a shock to see Jackman mishandle the character, and in The Wolverine not only do we find the actor in top physical form, but also playing up the mutant's tortured past to poignant effect. His talent for quips can still get big laughs too, as perfectly evidenced in a scene that finds the short-tempered character realizing he hadn't dispatched one of his enemies as intended. The rest of the largely Japanese cast toe the line with sturdy reliability, and Khodchenkova is appropriately serpentine as the poison-spitting Viper. The score by Marco Beltrami, meanwhile, combines Eastern and Western sensibilities with a fantastic ear for detail, at times seeming to echo Ennio Morricone's best work to deliver an air of palpable tension, which helps put this sinewy side story on par with the best of the main series.