A change of scenery is what The Wolverine needed, away from the generic metropolises usually defended by superheroes. Japan does the trick with ninjas, Yakuza and samurai lore giving the temperamental mutant loner known as Logan plenty to keep his adamantium claws busy. Not to mention a bullet train to ride. On top.
Slipping into Logan's manscaped, self-healing skin for the sixth time, Hugh Jackman has these surly, sweaty moves honed to mid-range art. Logan is a typically troubled Marvel hero given more torment than usual and for the first time physically, since he has always been indestructible. Jackson plays this new vulnerability solemnly sexy, with a brow so firmly furrowed that it seems like makeup, a mutant noir hero.
Credit is also due to director James Mangold, whose only previous action overindulgence Knight and Day shouldn't have seen either. Mangold proves himself capable of staging brawls sprawling over exotic locations, with lethal archers and blazing pistols competing for the highest body count. Logan is game for hand-to-hand combat anytime, with the advantage of retractable knuckle razors.
Dramatic instincts that made Mangold's Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line and Girl, Interrupted into moody character pieces also come in handy. Circumstances bringing Logan to the land and lacerations of Kill Bill are dark: massive guilt over killing the mutant he loved, Jean Grey, and a blast from his atomic bomb past, one of endless wars immortality brings. Jean haunts Logan in negligee hallucinations that never end happily. The POW camp officer he saved in Nagasaki is equally persistent.
Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) is much older and wealthier now, a Tokyo tycoon dying of cancer who covets Logan's immortality. Maybe he'd be better off without it, able to join Jean in the hereafter, after aging a while here. The offer leads Logan into the middle of a Yakuza power play, ninja defense and romance with Yashida's granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) despite the feisty, Pier-faced cyberpunk (Rila Fukushima) by his side.
Atmosphere rivals action for the first half of The Wolverine, with Mangold perhaps testing the patience of action fans but enjoying Japan's garishly fresh sensations. The first burst, a funeral shootout followed by that thrilling bullet train sequence, reveals an Asian cinema approach to acrobatic ballistics that's carried through to the finale.
Yet none of the chaos drowns out what amounts to Jackman's emotive miracle under these popcorn conditions, an acting gem that's unexpected and true. If comic book movies are the last place you look for a soulful, serious performance, The Wolverine should be your first.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.