Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Rohan on The Wolverine, a movie, ultimately, without honor...

(TODAY'S GUEST: Re-joining us here at Jaman HQ is Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK. Rohan has graciously allowed us to post his considered and detailed review of The Wolverine. We're always happy to welcome Rohan to Jaman HQ, and hope you will follow him on Twitter.)

There is a moment in The Wolverine which splits the film into two sections. Before this moment, the film functions as a slightly above average summer spectacle, but after it the film rapidly falls apart, exposing all of the frailties which had so far been concealed. Aside from undoing all the decent work which had come before, this moment only serves to magnify what is sorely lacking in big budget films today: stakes and consequences.

We’ll discuss ‘that moment’ after appreciating the many positive aspects of this $120 million comic book movie. There are themes running through the first half of the film which carry some weight in moving the story forward and picking up the pieces of the last two disastrous outings for Hugh Jackman as the titular character (X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) without needing to tell another origins story. The film begins with Wolverine facing inner turmoil over his role in the death of his true love Jane Grey, turning him into an outcast wandering the Canadian wilderness, unrecognisable from the hero we’ve seen in the previous films. In a flashback we see him at Nagasaki as a POW in a military base just before the atomic bomb is dropped; he saves Yashida, a Japanese soldier and the audience is treated to the film’s best visual effect as Wolverine is horrifically burned only to quickly, if painfully, regenerate again. It’s a shocking image for a 12A rated film but, we hope at this point, sets the tone for the film. It’s telling us this isn’t like any X-Men film we’ve seen before.

The story moves to Tokyo as Wolverine is tracked down by a girl working for the now-elderly Yashida who wishes to thank him for saving his life decades before. The film touches on themes of Wolverine’s immortality and the curse this has brought upon his life and the fact he must go on living without Jane Grey, and the offer of death from Yashida, a man who is searching for immortality. It is here that the other mutant in the film, Viper, is introduced, and though she will turn out to be one of the film major weaknesses, in this first half she serves a purpose (albeit clumsily) to weaken Wolverine’s regenerating powers. This gives the forthcoming action sequences their stakes and consequences: Wolverine is vulnerable, no longer can he instantly heal, and pain is something he now feels physically as well as emotionally. The film has a lead character the audience can invest in because the stakes are raised.

This is where director James Mangold comes into his own. Anyone who is familiar with his work knows he can handle action (Knight and Day, 3:10 To Yuma), character (Walk The Line), and drama (Cop Land, his urban western masterpiece) with ease; though he is very much a ‘director for hire’ in this instance, he deserves a film with this worldwide appeal. Not interested in drawing attention away from character and action, Mangold distances himself from the camera and allows the action scenes, in this first half, to grow organically and have a real sense of danger and excitement; there is nothing flashy or gratuitous about his action and this seems to be an ever decreasing skill with directors of this kind of film.

The standout sequence in the entire film (and by some margin) takes place on top of a moving ‘bullet train’ going 300 miles an hour:

In the trailers the scene looked woeful but in context it is masterfully executed; no soundtrack is used, heightening the noise of the train and effects as Wolverine fights off assassins whilst avoiding overhead bridges and other obstacles. The scene is perfect in length, the stakes are clear, and it doesn’t feel the need to flatten a city in the process. Moreover, no one else is aware this action is happening which is so rare in action films today, which go out of their way to ensure everyone in the vicinity are potential collateral.

Wolverine is hurting, tired, conflicted, and has his inner enemies. The film has patiently built up to a fantastic action set piece and, rightly so, slows down to build on character and themes once again. However, this is exactly where The Wolverine begins to show cracks, for the next 30 minutes serve such little purpose in contrast to the film's disastrous final act that all the quiet moments are for nothing. ‘That moment’ referred to at the start of this review is when Wolverine gets his powers back and once again becomes indestructible; the moment that happens, the film reverts back to type and follows the path of least resistance and forgets all the interesting themes in favour for Wolverine fighting a giant CGI silver samurai with a massive sword and showing Viper shedding skin for reasons never explained and wholly unwarranted. The stakes are removed, the consequences of the action are voided, and nothing matters anymore.

As soon as Wolverine gets back to full strength the film loses all credibility and integrity. This film does not, at any single juncture in its story, need a 10 foot CGI creation and at no point is it even hinted at; but the fact that the writers or studio felt the need to include this only serves to show the complete lack of courage of its own convictions to be something different and stand apart from the rest. This is the problem with the large majority of blockbusters today, not just this film: they treat the audience like imbeciles who cannot go two hours without seeing some kind of needless and unjustified CGI spectacle, even one as relatively low-key as this. It’s like listening to your favourite radio station only for someone to abruptly switch to some mindless noise. “Hey, I was enjoying that” you might say in protest, but they don’t listen and just turn up the volume to drown you out.

There is an extra scene during the credits which teases the next X-Men film but it just reminds us of the disposable nature of these films; the credits can no longer even finish before we’re asked to forget what we’ve just watched and get ready for something new. Whatever happened to making a successful film to stand on its own and savour the experience if it was one you enjoyed? Why this need to make films as glorified adverts for something else? Why couldn’t The Wolverine just have been a decent, low-key comic book outing and not a film made by committee?

So many questions. The answer is in your wallet.

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