The tendency for film adaptations of superhero comics has been to provide spectacle and city-smashing action. The stakes are always high in these films; the whole of humanity or mutantkind itself is usually in danger of imminent destruction or oppression. The Wolverine, which sees the character mooching around Japan charged with protecting just a single woman, is pretty refreshing for its small-scale ambitions.
Tormented by a vision of Jean Grey, killed by Wolverine in The Last Stand, The Wolverine sees the character retreating to the wilderness, bedraggled and haunted. This isn’t, then, another epic blockbuster, but a more intimate character-driven piece that’s as much about Wolverine finding a reason to live as it is about him protecting his charge. Effects-driven sequences are used sparingly; in between discussions of mortality and purpose, the action is all fast-paced, hand-to-hand combat with plenty of ninjas and Yakuza mobsters, giving the film a nice ’80s direct-to-video feel.
As the breadth of the story is reduced, so is the cast. Previous X-Men films have piled on mutant after mutant. Here, there are just two others — Yukio and Viper — and a couple of human characters. Yukio (played by the excellent newcomer Rila Fukushima) is saddled with the uninteresting ability to see when someone is going to die, but she makes up for this by being the most enjoyable character to watch here by far, not just for her punchy fighting skills but for the snarky, lighter counterpoint she provides to surly Logan.
Nobody else really shines that much. The human characters are a little forgettable, and while Svetlana Khodchenkova as the poison-spitting Viper is a decent, ice-cold antagonist, she’s more henchman than anything else, leaving the film without a clear and strong opponent for the most part. The low-budget vibe of the film is also lost towards the end, as the assumed need for an action climax results in a faintly baffling battle with a giant samurai exoskeleton and a last-minute exposition dump that reminds us there was a plot running alongside Wolverine’s soul-searching that we were meant to have been paying attention to.
Despite this, this is a worthwhile watch, even if the film is a little schizophrenic in tone at times. Jackman is as good in the role as he always is, Fukushima is endlessly watchable, and the story is on an understandable, human scale. There’s also the best train-top fight-sequence since Spider-Man 2.
The Wolverine will presumably be Hugh Jackman’s penultimate appearance as Wolverine; Days of Future Past will likely be his last showing, unless 20th Century Fox can throw enough money at him to make him forget his qualms about maintaining Wolverine’s form at his age. It’s a shame it took so long to reach a point where the character is as compelling as he is here, and it’s ironic that Days of Future Past will be returning to the “just cast everyone and throw them at the screen” model of previous X-Men films, but at least there’s a convincing precedent for the existence of smaller, character-focused comic adaptations over giant, $250,000,000 tentpoles. What future the character has after Jackman retires from the role is unclear, but I’d love to see more films like this, or, even better, a TV series.