The Wolverine does not embrace with the same fervor the lethal advantages of his retractable claws the way Freddie Krueger does his similarly designed bladed glove, but when he does use them, they are unleashed with savagery upon his foes.
Hugh Jackman is back for his fifth performance — sixth if one counts his uncredited stint in “X-Men: First Class” — as Logan, so far the most highly profiled of the X-Men, the Wolverine. Under the guidance of director James Mangold, who has shown his skills in presenting drama (“Walk the Line,” “Girl, Interrupted”), writers Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) and Scott Frank (“Marley and Me,” “Minority Report,” and screen adaptations of Elmore Leonard’s “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight”), “The Wolverine” is a balanced blend of action and character. The filmmakers wisely adapted one of the popular Wolverine stories from the comic version, landing Logan in Japan where there is plenty of peril and need for his mutant talents.
In an opening flashback, Logan’s earlier visit to Japan found him imprisoned outside of Nagasaki in the late days of World War II. When the second atom bomb is dropped on this city, Logan saves the life of a young Japanese soldier, Yashida.
Decades later, Logan is living a hermit life in the wilderness, still haunted by the death of his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who dominates his dreams, while he drifts along with no sense of purpose. His only trips to civilization are to buy batteries for an old clock radio. When his peaceful co-existence with a grizzly bear is savagely terminated, he heads into town and the bar therein where the culprits are drinking. He is in clean-out-the-bar mode, a la Steve Seagal, but before its gets too nasty, a young Japanese lady intervenes. She is Yukio (Rila Fukushima) who after getting him out of the bar informs Logan that his old friend Yashida, who founded the huge corporation named after him, is gravely ill and wants Logan to come to Japan and say goodby.
That turns out to be a ruse, as Yashida really wants to offer Logan a chance at mortality. Calling eternal life on Earth a curse, Yashida claims that with chemists in tow he has an ability to undo the mutant factors in Logan so that he can grow old but live a normal life.
Logan is skeptical but also suspicious of what is going on around Yashida. First there is the lady doctor/biochemist (Svetlana Khodchenkova) who just has that look of not being who she claims to be. There are family tensions, as Yashida’s son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) clearly is not favored by his father, who instead sees Shingen’s daughter Mariko (Tao Okamota) as the more worthy heir. Add to this that the Yashida empire is the target of Yakuzas and ninjas and corruption within the Japan government, you have the potential for a big mess — the perfect therapy for Logan as he wrestles with his sorrow, guilt and sense of worth.
The action picks up at the funeral of Yashida, where an attempt to kidnap Mariko is foiled by Logan, Yukio and others. Once Logan and Mariko find temporary sanctuary, the Wolverine tries to untangle all these factors with the Yashidas and their foes. His red flags over the biochemist prove to be dead on.
There are calm moments in “The Wolverine” that give Logan a chance to reassess his life while also finding that Mariko, at first a seemingly frail young woman, proves to have an inner strength that appeals to Logan.
Jackman’s take on Wolverine in this movie is much more somber than previous outings. Yes, he still has not come to terms with his mutant gifts, but in “The Wolverine” he displays much more despair and little humor. But his humanity gets a workout, particularly in his growing affection for Mariko — played with understated style by Okamoto in her first movie role. Meanwhile, his tolerance for Yukio eventually grows into a grudging respect.
Among the villains, Khodchenkova oozes an arrogance that almost has Wolverine outmatched.
Mangold and company provide a study of this unique character and set the table ably for Jackman’s next foray into the world of the Wolverine, “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which gets a teaser in the credits, something that has become a staple of movies based on Marvel characters.