Consider chairs. Some chairs are truly pieces of art. They are made with real skill and creativity, providing a pleasing functional experience while providing a stimulating and awe-inspiring aesthetic one. Other chairs are simply chairs. Such it is with films, and The Wolverine (2013) is most definitely simply a chair. It’s got four legs and supports your weight when you sit on it, so at a certain point you have to applaud it for that (especially when you consider how many other movies can’t muster even that much). On the other hand, I don’t go to the theater for an experience just north of the demarcation between good and bad, and I don’t know how far you can praise a movie whose most compelling attribute is its adequacy.
In The Wolverine Hugh Jackman returns for the fifth time to star as Logan, the mysterious mutant known as Wolverine who has a skeleton made of a metal that’s stronger than steel, can heal at an almost instantaneous rate, doesn’t age and has gruesome claws that spring out of his knuckles on command. Logan, being ageless, was a POW in World War II in Japan, Nagasaki, to be exact. In a solitary confinement bunker (along with his extraordinary healing ability), he was able to survive the blast of the atomic bomb, even rescuing and protecting a Japanese officer in the process. The officer would go on to become one of the most powerful industrialists in Japan. In present day the man, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), in his dying days tracks down his old war buddy to make him a proposition. Yashida has found a scientific way to extract Logan’s immortality and transfer it to himself. He asks, having remembered Logan’s disenchantment with eternal life, if he’d be willing to switch. Logan declines and the very next day Yashida dies. Logan then finds himself in the middle of a struggle between opposing forces over the control of Yashida’s empire, siding with Yashida’s pretty granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), to whom the old man had legally bequeathed everything. Competing against her is a bitter and jealous son, the Japanese mafia and a mysterious figure named Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) with immunity to all poisons and a tongue that can instantly take a life.
The movie skillfully sets up and pays off its mystery, which is fairly obvious but sufficiently satisfactory. What it does right is mainly in its pacing, meting out action at the right time and staying largely in one location to take time to build steam toward a finale. There are a number of wonderful design elements, including Yashida’s medical bed of pneumatic needles that rises and falls depending on his movements. There’s also a lot of talk of honor and code (though in a simplistic way that, slightly patronizingly, weds these things as inherent in Japanese culture), and the Yashida compound reminded me of the home in Harakari (1962), a movie exclusively concerned with those two ideas. There’s also a chase on the top of a bullet train that is exhilarating.
The problem is that the movie, while competently built, doesn’t build anything too remarkable, original or interesting. Part of this is the attempt to stretch a thin story over the running time of a feature. The mystery plot is standard and therefore the movie runs around in circles for a little while to fill time. Filler is a staple of big action movies, but typically the filmmakers take this time to add characterization or layers to the plot. Not so much here. If the script had cut a few scenes of Logan taking a step-by-tiny-step process to a conclusion that most of the graduates of eighth grade in the audience had already figured out and had added a few to develop the romance between Logan and Mariko, which is subsequently shoehorned and unearned, the project would have been better off.
The overcooked mystery and the undercooked romance actually intersect in a bizarre moment. Mariko is engaged to a corrupt politician (a loveless arrangement for power purposes) and Logan, on the hunt for answers, finds the fiancé accompanied by two half-naked good-time girls. Logan says, “Call me old-fashioned, but I thought being engaged meant you were done with this kind of bullshit,” referring, presumably, to the affianced cheating. I guess Logan forgot that in literally the previous sequence he was sleeping with Mariko, who, in line with Logan’s old-fashioned ways, was engaging in the exact same kind of bullshit. Either ditch the fact that Mariko is engaged to this guy, which is ultimately pointless anyway, or, gasp, have the leading man and leading woman not sleep with each other, as that proves to be just as narratively pointless. But you can’t have your hero be, by definition, a philanderer and then pay-off a line where the hero tongue-lashes a philanderer.
Much of what works in the movie is saddled with something that doesn’t. Part of the buoyancy of a character like Wolverine is that his invincibility isn’t complete; it is conditional, which gives the impression of vulnerability and therefore drama. The Wolverine takes this a step further, inventing a way of taking Logan’s instant healing away from him and he spends the middle third of the movie denied of his powers, adding intrigue and suspense to the action set pieces. He restores his abilities by performing surgery on his own heart to remove a planted gizmo that was sapping his potency. He guides his hand by watching on monitors connected to x-ray machines, machines that are splayed across the room when an assailant bursts in an attacks Logan and a companion. He tries to operate blind and his companion keeps the assassin at bay in a preposterously entertaining and creatively thrilling moment. However, once Logan has righted himself, he fights the assassin himself in an extended sequence that is deflated of all tension because we know Logan is invincible again. The stunts, while skillful, are wasted because we are no longer invested.
Ultimately, nothing dooms The Wolverine but nothing propels it either, so it fails to draw much praise or condemnation. I suppose that in itself is its own condemnation, but I tell you, if you can’t sit on a piece of art, it’s better than sitting on the ground.