“Everything has a meaning”

To think, just a few short years ago The Wolverine held infinite promise. Fox brought in Christopher McQuarrie to rekindle his X-Men involvement after uncredited work on pal Bryan Singer’s franchise starter and independent auteur Darren Aronofsky was tapped to finally get a comic book flick after losing out on a Batman: Year One go. Star Hugh Jackman was giddy in interviews about the visual aesthetic a Japanese setting would give—the film culls its material from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s Wolverine arc—as well as the out-of-the-box atmosphere he excitedly believed his director would bring. And then the bottom fell out with its prolonged Pacific shoot causing Aronofsky to jump ship, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami postponing production, and Mark Bomback and Scott Frank getting hired to rewrite.

What looked like a welcome about-face from the much-maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine now started to appear destined for the same fate. Why was a script so many people thought excellent given an overhaul at the eleventh hour while Jackman filmed Les Misérables? Was newly signed helmer James Mangold ready to put his solid portfolio on the line with a big budget superhero flick promising to be much darker than his most recent action/comedy Knight and Day? Was Jackman’s consummate enthusiasm overselling the potential of what could be delivered despite his character’s unnecessarily cartoony depiction in an emotionless prequel that derailed Fox’s plans for more Origin titles? These are questions I should have kept asking myself upon its release, but strong word of mouth had me drinking the Kool-Aid right until the end.

The saddest part of what eventually found its way onscreen is seeing the glimpses of how good The Wolverine could have been. Logan’s character is ripe for guilt-ravaged instability especially post-X-Men: The Last Stand and his sacrificing of love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) for the greater good. He truly is a r?nin roaming our world without a master, destined to walk eternity while those he cares about wither and die. You can’t blame him for escaping into the woods of an isolated township, doing the hermit thing as he dreams about his greatest regret and tries hard to honor his oath to her about retiring from killing in the names of revenge, justice, or anything else. Immortality has always been his cross to bear, but never before was it so painfully impossible than now.

Lost in thought about all the bad he has done, young Yukio’s (Rila Fukushima) arrival to remind him of the good couldn’t have come at a better time. The ward of a technology giant in Tokyo named Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi)—whom Logan saved decades ago from the fallout of Nagasaki—Yukio was sent to bring him to Japan as her master lay dying of cancer. More than simply a chance to say goodbye to the man who gave him life, however, Yashida’s true intentions lie in his ability to cure Wolverine of his affliction. He says he can extract Logan’s immortality by transferring it to himself—giving salvation to his old friend while once more prolonging his life in the process. Too honorable to willfully place his suffering on another, the mutant declines.  

It’s a fantastic first act that allows Jackman to instill the sort of pathos we know exists in a character like Wolverine yet is always masked by the wise-cracking brute force of nature Hollywood finds so appealing. There is heart and soul in his wrestling with Jean Grey’s ghost as well as his other personal demons and a penchant for wreaking havoc on a vile population losing all semblance of morality inside their dog-eat-dog world. We know he’d love to release himself from eternity’s prison, we’re inspired by his refusal to take the easy way out by ignoring the consequences, and we enjoy his deep-seeded desire to fight for good kicking into overdrive as Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is kidnapped by Yakuza. The samurai action begins and the bodies begin to mount.

But as soon as this spurt of action dies to show Logan isn't healing effectively, intelligent storytelling with emotive weight is replaced by a not-as-smart-as-it-thinks thriller housing way too many characters and a second act adding nothing of merit. We get Mariko’s father (Hiroyuki Sanada), fiancé (Brian Tee), and ninja ex-boyfriend (Will Yun Lee) all lacking the subtlety necessary to authentically play both sides and the sexy Svetlana Khodchenkova's Viper slinking around injecting her acidic saliva into the faces of anyone nearby before stripping off her clothes to molt in a moment that could only have been shot to show off her naked body and yet doesn't due to PG-13 restrictions. They all show their true colors, battle Wolverine, and gradually pick each other off until only an altered-canon version of Silver Samurai is left.

Promise devolves into mindless action with Mariko’s knife expert rendered into a glorified damsel in distress, a lame villain in Viper spending an entire fight filming Wolverine on her phone as though to upload to YouTube, the complete disappearance of Yukio’s bad ass for the film’s majority, and an unforgivable glossing over of Logan mortality as nothing more than an excuse for the make-up artists to give him scars. The final act is overpopulated, too slow, and riddled with contrived relationship baggage devoid of surprise. The fight scenes may often be cool and Jackman does try to make his character more than the pure muscle in a violent free-for-all he’s rendered, but it’s unfortunately all for naught. When the biggest cheer comes from the post-credit sequence, you obviously lost your way somewhere.

The Wolverine: 6/10