"To be, or not to be" ... let's make it: "To slash, or not to slash." Because The Wolverine is a lot more existential than recent installments in the movie series based on X-Men comic books.
The Wolverine is nothing if not ambitious — a moody, haunted tale of Logan the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) coping with his ghosts and settling old debts, in Japan, no less. It's the perfect country for a guy who appreciates a good, sharp blade.
If this take on the superhero franchise from director James Mangold (Walk the Line) stumbles up blind alleys, overreaches and turns long and repetitious by its bloody, bland and predictable third act, at least it gives Jackman something worth chewing over for the first 90 minutes.
We first see Logan in solitary confinement, stuck in a well in a Japanese POW camp at the end of World War II. His captors panic at the sight of a couple of B-29 bombers, and one frees the American prisoners; that's very uncharacteristic behavior historically, but hey, this is comic book history. Logan shields the guard when the big blast comes because this turns out to be Nagasaki, where the second atomic bomb was detonated to force Japan's surrender.
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Decades later, the immortal mutant with the Adamantium knives in his fists is summoned by a martial arts pixie (Rila Fukushima) to the side of the man he saved.
"Eternity can be a curse," speculates the dying man (Hal Yamanouchi), now a billionaire. "A man can run out of things to live for." He offers his savior the chance to lose his immortality, to live a normal lifespan without the super-healing powers and strength that make absurd the very idea that Wolverine would have ever been a prisoner of war.
Wolverine finds himself mixed up in the succession between the dying man and his heirs. The Japanese mob, the Yakuza, is trying to nab the granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), and Wolverine chases her cross-country to protect her.
Wolverine takes his place within Japanese culture as a Ronin, a loner, a samurai without a leader or purpose. He's dreaming a lot about the mutant he loved but had to kill (Famke Janssen), and fretting over the dying old man's doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a fork-tongued devil. Then his powers start to fail him.
Mangold sets up an interesting premise: an immortal tired of living faced with mortality. How brave can Wolverine be when the bullets leave permanent holes, when every arrow fired by a ninja could kill and every slashing-fight against samurai sword-wielding foes could be his last?
Then the movie stumbles into the curse of the feeble villains — none worthy of Wolverine's knives — and the trap of endless fights. The action sequences are grimly violent and entertaining, but there is no one written or cast in this who is worthy of his best efforts.
Jackman has great presence in this role — brooding, sulking, wisecracking to alarmed airport metal detector operators ("Hip replacement.")
This Wolverine gets our hopes up, and falls short. If you're the sort who stays through the credits and swoons over whatever the tease for the next film promises, this is for you. For anybody with a more demanding palate, even of a summer comic book movie, The Wolverine might leave you wanting the higher-minded movie this one promised to be — for a while.
PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language. 20th Century Fox. 2:02. 2D: Frankfort, Winchester; drive-ins: Harrodsburg, Paris, Winchester. 3D: Fayette Mall, Georgetown, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Nicholasville, Richmond, Woodhill.