As much as I adore the character and the actor who has now played him in six films, I'll admit that I entered director James Mangold's comic-book spectacular The Wolverine with more than a touch of trepidation, as I was still smarting from the bloated, boring mess that was 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Weren't there other costumed crime-fighters in the X-Men universe - Anna Paquin's Rogue, perhaps, or Ben Foster's Angel - who might've enjoyed their own solo projects before we were given yet another go-around with the growling softie with the adamantium claws and questionable grooming habits? Hadn't poor Hugh Jackman, and poor us, suffered enough?
Well, color me floored, because not only is The Wolverine an enormous amount of fun, but to my mind, it stands as the bar-none-best superhero entertainment of the summer - and, quite possibly, of the past several summers. Simultaneously epic and intimate, and showcasing a commitment to character at least as strong as its commitment to blockbuster-minded thrills and the procurement of our cineplex dollars, Mangold's outing is truly sensational, and manages to erase nearly all memories of Jackman's last, unfortunate stab at the role in leading-man form. (Memories of his three-word cameo in X-Men: First Class, happily, will never be erased.) The movie, at its climax, eventually descends into sadly typical comic-book-mayhem territory, complete with Jackman thrashing away at a megalomaniac in oversize robot gear and the film's heroic female ass-kicker squaring off against the film's nefarious female ass-kicker. (Ah, gender equality ... .) Until then, however, The Wolverine is nearly pitch-perfect, and a fantastic reminder that even its now-tired genre can still feel fresh and vital given the right blend of smarts, jokes, emotional connection, and action scenes that make you unable to loosen your grip on the arms of your theater seat.
Barring the jokes, because the situation doesn't call for them, all of those elements are in play from Mangold's first sequence, a devastating visualization of World War II's Nagasaki bombing seen first in stomach-tightening long shot, and then in nightmarish closeup. It's here that Jackman's immortal Logan - i.e., the Wolverine - saves a young Japanese officer from annihilation, thereby initiating a debt that the officer intends to pay back in the film's present-day scenes, with an offer to make Logan fully human and allow him "the chance to die an ordinary death." (As Logan is routinely haunted by the spirit of his deceased love Jean Grey - played, as usual, by the eternally bewitching Famke Janssen - it's hardly an unappealing offer.) This sends the Wolverine to Japan, accompanied by a feisty, magenta-haired martial-arts whiz named Yukio (Rila Fukushima, the literal embodiment of a manga character), and I'd rather not reveal much more about the film's plotting, as the surprises - and there are several biggies here - are key to its appeal. Suffice it to say that this tightly constructed comic-book thriller also winds up involving the Japanese mafia, an heiress (Tao Okamoto) under constant threat of kidnapping, and an insidious beauty named Viper (Svetlana Khidchenkova) who spits acid from her forked, lizard-like tongue. It should also be said that for the majority of its 130 minutes, The Wolverine is an almost embarrassingly good time.
I say "embarrassingly" because so much of its good time hails from elements that are hardly unusual in the comic-book-movie canon: lengthy chases through densely populated urban streets; mano a mano battles atop speeding locomotives; wisecracks delivered right after moments of unexpected violence. ("How did you know there was a pool down there?" asks Yukio after Logan tosses a politician from a skyscraper window into the water below. "I didn't" is his curt reply.) Yet Mangold, a first-rate genre filmmaker on works such as Cop Land and 3:10 to Yuma, brings energy and expert timing to both the movie's most explosive set pieces and its subtlest gags; there's a particularly sharp one here when Logan makes his way through an airport's metal detector with the quick rejoinder "Hip replacement." And in addition to the welcome humor, screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank provide the film with a gravitas that never turns funereal. With the soul behind Jackman's portrayal evident even when Logan is at his most vengeance-minded, undercurrents of deep emotionalism cascade all throughout The Wolverine, giving the impression that something is actually at stake in this make-believe world - and not merely the general, hackneyed Plight of Humankind, as in Zack Snyder's execrable Man of Steel. I'm still half-waiting for those Rogue and Angel X-Men offshoots, but after Mangold's near-triumph here, I'm almost hoping that it's the Wolverine series, and not just the Wolverine himself, that proves immortal.
THE TO DO LIST
Aubrey Plaza, as fans of Parks & Recreation and the feature film Safety Not Guaranteed are aware, is a marvelously gifted deadpan comedienne. What the 29-year-old performer is not, however, is in any way believable as an 18-year-old with a crippling lack of awareness and irony, which is unfortunately what she's asked to play in writer/director Maggie Carey's The To Do List. A crass, desperately unamusing slapstick about a virginal high-school valedictorian who's determined to work her way through every conceivable sexual activity prior to college, the film's impressively blunt attitudes toward (and gags about) sex would carry more weight, and would be a lot more fun, if they didn't require Plaza to look so foolish during them. Sadly, though, Plaza appears as uncomfortable during the movie's many gross-outs as she looks trying to act sensitive and heartbroken while curled up in a fetal position on her bed; you don't buy her scenes of comic torment, or even basic empathy, because it seems quite clear that Plaza herself doesn't buy them. (All throughout the movie, she should be wearing a sandwich board that reads "Miscast and Refusing to Hide It.") This poorly written, awkwardly structured To Do List isn't worth getting into, let alone actually viewing, but I was at least somewhat grateful for the rare pleasurable moments offered by the surprisingly robust supporting cast, an ensemble that includes Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Connie Britton, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Scott Porter, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. And I was very grateful for the presence of Clark Gregg as our heroine's dad, an actor whose own comic deadpan matches Plaza's so beautifully that someone really should get cracking on a much better co-starring vehicle for the pair. Maybe a remake of Paper Moon? Granted, she can't pull off 18 here, but how about eight?