The Wolverine is a surprising movie in some respects. Not in terms of the plot; there’s pretty much nothing in this movie that you won’t see coming. But rather in terms of how brutal it’s willing to be, and how much it lets Hugh Jackman play to his strengths. Unfortunately, the third act throws ninjas and a giant robot at us, and nearly derails the whole thing.
It’s a familiar plot, mind you; a tough guy, stuck in a foreign land, struggling with his past decisions, and discovering the means to move on and some asses to kick. It’s a sturdy form, though, and it’s perfectly suited for the strengths of its lead.
Yet again, Hugh Jackman makes this movie. Jackman became the linchpin of the X-Men franchise for a reason; he carries himself off here with a lot of humor, grit and panache. Just like X-Men Origins: Wolverine sputters to life whenever the camera gets in close and gives him a situation to work, so this movie’s best moments tend to be Jackman, up close and personal, whether he’s struggling with guilt or struggling not to beat some jerk senseless. It helps a lot that this movie dances right up to the line of being an actual R-rated Wolverine movie; how they got away with some of the kills here is totally beyond me.
The main problem is the third act: After two acts of Wolverine fighting yakuza and unraveling a not-exactly-complex plot of corporate intrigue, as well as a few pretty solid action sequences and a truly great one on the bullet train we all saw in the trailer, there’s a clunky finale involving ninjas and a giant robot, most of which was utterly unnecessary and brings back unpleasant memories of X-Men: The Last Stand in terms of how overstuffed it is. Even worse, it cheats; you will find yourself asking questions where you really shouldn’t. Yes, they were in the comics this was based on, but they feel extraneous.
It doesn’t help that the big Wolvie/ninjas fight was obviously cut to ribbons in the editing room, probably because it was completely unnecessary. Similarly, the giant robot bit, it’s not a surprise with the big twist, and the movie can’t even be bothered to pretend we’re supposed to be surprised, although there is some killer CGI and acting work at the end. At least it’s not boring, which is more than I can say for some of this franchise’s low points.
It’s a shame because James Mangold handles the gritty, grounded stuff quite well, and this is so close to the R-rated line you kind of wish Fox had let Mangold and Jackman make the R-rated Wolvie movie they’re obviously itching to. Mangold works in bits of dark humor and moments for Jackman to shine into the various fistfights in the first two acts, and as a result they feel a lot fresher and looser. It’s odd to say it should have had less ambition, but if it had stuck with its tough-guy-out-of-water, low-key tone, The Wolverine would have been a better movie. As it is, Jackman gets enough to do, and does it well enough, that it’s worth seeing in that regard alone.
And, oh yes, there’s a post-credits teaser at the end. And it’s going to warm the cockles of the heart of every X-fan. I won’t spoil it here, but even if the movie stank, it’d be worth that money just to see that teaser.