"The Wolverine" marks the sixth time that Hugh Jackman has portrayed the beloved mutant superhero known as Wolverine (that includes his tiny, brilliant cameo in "X-Men: First Class") over the past 13 years. It's the most times a single actor has portrayed any comic-book character on the big screen, and by now the role fits him like a glove. Like Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, at this point it's nearly impossible to imagine any other actor in the part. This is the second standalone film starring Wolverine separate from his X-Men teammates, following 2009's disappointing "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (which, full disclosure, I heard such terrible things about that I never bothered to see). Thankfully, this time around, new director to the series James Mangold ("Walk the Line," "3:10 to Yuma") has delivered a film worthy of the character and of Jackman's performance.
Inspired (very loosely) by the celebrated limited series of Wolverine comics from the 80's, written by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller, the film picks up with Logan still recovering from the events of "X-Men: The Last Stand." He's haunted by dreams of Jean Grey, the woman he loved, but was forced to kill at the end of that film. Now in full Grizzly Adams mode, he's living in the Canadian wilderness, befriending the bears, and vowing never to hurt another living creature ever again. Naturally, since this is a superhero action movie, that vow doesn't last too long.
After making himself extremely conspicuous during a barroom scuffle, Logan is approached by a young woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who has tracked him down for the purposes of bringing him to Japan at the behest of Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), an old acquaintance who we learn in the film's prologue was saved by Logan during the bombing of Nagasaki. A wealthy business tycoon, Yashida now lies on his deathbed, apparently wanting to say goodbye to the man to whom he owes his life in the first place. But things aren't entirely as they seem, and soon the hero finds himself embroiled in a plot beyond his understanding, becoming the default protector of Yashida's granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), and fending off an endless sea of villainy, including the Yakuza, samurai warriors, and hordes of ninja assassins. More people get sliced and diced over the course of this movie than in a typical "Friday the 13th" installment, but of course it's all utterly bloodless in order for the film to secure that all-important PG-13 rating.
What I've enjoyed most about the recent crop of superhero films is the way studios and filmmakers have gradually realized that there's room for different types of stories to be told within that genre. Not every story needs to revolve around the heroes putting a stop to some supervillain's elaborate plan for world domination, and "The Wolverine" feels like the culmination of that wonderful realization. With its (relatively) low-stakes plot, the film unfolds like a mystery drenched in the trappings of stylishly pulpy noir thrillers. It's a tone the film manages to maintain all the way up until the rather cartoony climax, when it feels as though Mangold suddenly remembered that when making a superhero movie, there are certain tropes he's obligated to include, and he started dutifully working his way through them, complete with excessive CGI battles. But until that point, the movie is pretty fantastic and Mangold delivers a nice balance of character-based drama and exciting combat sequences, including a thrilling fight atop a speeding bullet train.
Jackman once again commits completely to the role. He delivers a fully rendered performance and even after all these years, the actor shows no signs of tiring of the character. Newcomer Rila Fukushima turns in the other performance highlight of the film as Yukio. Her character is totally kick-ass, and best of all, she's allowed to be strong all the way through; she's never reduced to needing to be rescued by the hero. Tao Okamoto is also quite good, and while Mariko isn't the badass Yukio is, she's allowed to show her strength in other ways as the film progresses. She also has a nice chemistry with Jackman, and the gradual development of her character into a love interest for Logan is handled well.
I haven't mentioned the villainous femme-fatale of the film, Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), and while there are some fun visual effects involving her character, she feels completely extraneous to the plot of the film. Her scenes often feel out of place, and I'm not sure if it's the actor's performance or simply that her character embodies all the silliest aspects of the standard comic-book movie that "The Wolverine" otherwise skillfully avoids.