Critic's Grade: B
Poor Wolverine has been plagued for a long time by a very puzzling issue, and it's not the struggles with virtual immortality or the guilt he feels over having to kill his girlfriend when she turned all evil. It's the fact that, despite the best efforts of Hugh Jackman and an exceptionally cool backstory in the second X-Men
movie, the poor, goofy-haired bastard has kind of been shafted in his big-screen outings, particularly in the horrific X-Men: The Last Stand
and the insufferable standalone disaster X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Thing is, Logan's story is seemingly the most easily translatable and cinematic of all the mutants in his universe. Dude's been alive for hundreds of years. He's pissed. He has gigantic metal talons that, when experiencing the aforementioned pissed-offedness, he plunges into people. Or into robots. Or into people operating robots. Sometimes into himself. That's the rudimentary overview of this character, and yet the poor guy has been stuck in a cycle of increasingly crappy movies, including an origin story that told the same origin story that X2 managed as a subplot, but nonetheless came out like a cross between Commando and a B-list X-Men spinoff with extra will.i.am.
No wonder the dude's so pissed.
But The Wolverine—Jackman and James Mangold's love letter to the character/apology to fans still spurned by Origins—is a completely different beast, which becomes apparent in the film's staggering opening, set in the moments directly preceding the bombing of Nagasaki. Fast forward to the present, and Logan's in Alaska, doing the whole mountain man thing, hanging out with his CGI bear buddy, and practicing pacifism that, of course, doesn't last for very long.
Soon, he meets a psychic (Rila Fukushima), who whisks him away to Tokyo to say goodbye to a dying friend. This friend claims to possess the power to remove Wolverine's ability to rapidly heal, thus granting him the ability to grow old, die and finally be reunited with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whose spirit haunts his dreams.
That's all fine and exposition-y, but the plot exists for two reasons: to make Logan more vulnerable by stripping away his invincibility, and to get the claws out. Before you can say "burning existential crisis," Logan is thrust into a crazy-complicated family war in which he's forced to take on hordes of yakuza and ninjas in a series of explosive set-pieces highlighted by a snow-covered battle with archers and a 300-mph melee atop a bullet train that somehow makes the tired trope of a train-top fight fresh again.
For fans, this is the Wolverine movie they've been waiting for: a funny, fast and ballistic actioner based on a Frank Miller story that doesn't rely on references to other films, tie-ins, or anything other than the story at hand. The gloves come off early on, and from there it's a fairly non-stop ride that only derails in its final minutes, as double-crosses pile up too high and an extended battle with a fairly silly foe goes on a bit too long.
Jackman, who has played the role a whopping six times, is completely at home in his sinewy skin, and here plays the character with gruff charm and humanity, from his cockiness in battle to his confusion with the culture of Japanese love hotels.
Jackman's always deserved better than the diminishing quality of X-Men films. So have fans. Here, they both get what they've always wanted: A cool, hyperkinetic standalone comprised mainly of a dude with claws hacking his way through sea of ninjas. It's basically a high-budget take on an old-school samurai flick, with Wolverine as the ronin. And it's as awesome as it sounds.