Has there been another actor who has been as thoroughly identified with a singular character as Hugh Jackman has been with the conflicted mutant Wolverine-who he has now played in 10 films-and still managed to have a thriving career playing other characters on both stage and screen? When Jackman was cast for Bryan Singer's original X-Men (2000), he was a complete unknown in Hollywood, having starred in several Australian television series and a handful of movies down under; it was a daring casting coup, given that Wolverine had long become a familiar standout-the fan favorite of the series. Over the past 17 years, he has developed a thriving career as a brooding, ruggedly handsome, but approachable Hollywood star who is as comfortable in musicals (he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in 2012's Les Misrables) as he is in dark fantasies (2006's The Fountain), action spectacle (he was literally the only watchable part of 2004's dreadful Van Helsing), and brutal dramas (where was the Oscar nomination for his searing turn as a distraught father in 2013's Prisoners?). He has been successful in multiple venues, winning a Tony for his role in The Boy From Oz and an Emmy for hosting the Tonys. If he is ever typecast, it is usually as the surly, sometimes inebriated, angry outsider who is redeemed by his association with something or someone more pure and innocent (see 2011's Real Steel and 2016's Eddie the Eagle).
James Mangold's Logan-the tenth X-Men film, the third stand-alone Wolverine film (following 2011's X-Men Origins: Wolverine and 2014's The Wolverine, the latter also directed by Mangold), the first of the series to carry an R rating, and quite possibly the best comic book film since Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008)-fits quiet well with that typecasting, as it presents us with an aging, embittered, and dying Wolverine in the near-distant future of 2029, which is notable for being almost entirely devoid of mutants (those people born with a special X-gene that gives them various superhuman powers). The hope of peaceable co-existence between humans and mutants, which had played the role of social and moral backbone to greater and lesser degrees in each of the previous films in the series, is now moot, as there hasn't been a mutant birth in 25 years and almost all of the previously existing mutants, including virtually all of the X-Men, are dead.
Wolverine, also known as Logan, is working as a limousine driver, earning money with the hope of being able to buy a boat that will allow him and Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the telekinetic former leader of the X-Men, to live on the ocean, completely isolated and away from prying eyes. Logan is a shell of his former self-heavily bearded, haggard, limping, and aged in all the worst ways, he looks and moves like someone who has been alive for 200 years-and Charles is even worse, as he is suffering from dementia and seizures and his body looks so frail we fear it might snap in two. Charles is kept confined in an overturned water tower (which, despite its rust and holes, is visually reminiscent of the cavernous Cerebro in the previous films) on a dusty farm in northern Mexico, where Logan and his assistant, an albino telepath mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant), care for him primarily by keeping him on heavy anti-seizure medication (his seizures unleash telepathic waves that are potentially deadly).
As in previous films, Logan's self-imposed isolation is interrupted by an intrusion from the outside world he is trying so desperately to escape, in this case a Mexican nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who seeks him out to help an 11-year-old girl named Laura (Dafne Keen). Laura is a mutant much like Logan in terms of both temperament (anger, distrust, lack of self-control) and abilities (she can self-heal from almost any wound, is incredibly fast and powerful, and has retractable claws coated in the mysterious metal adamantium); but, unlike Logan, she is not a product of nature, but rather of a large corporation's research and development headed up by the amoral Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant). The corporation wants its dangerous science experiment back, so it unleashes a brutal bounty hunter named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and a small army of gun-toting, musclebound goons to track Laura down, which sends her on the run with Logan and Charles, who are led to believe they can take her to "Eden," a mutant sanctuary in Canada.
Unlike so many superhero films, particularly those in the increasingly bombastic and bloated Avengers series, Logan is spare and thematically intense, focusing on fundamental issues of morality and spirituality, rather than saving the world from another invading alien army or larger-than-life supervillain. Everything is stripped down to distinctly human terms, which is reflected in the film's lack of big CGI setpieces and end-of-the-world scenarios (which, ironically, was precisely what made the most recent X-Men film, the appropriately titled X-Men: Apocalypse, so wearisome). Mangold, who also scripted with Scott Frank and Michael Green, has said in interviews that the film's R rating was not just about being able to show all the blood and viscera that comes with adamantium claws shredding human flesh and characters barking curse words, but also about signaling that the film was more of an adult drama that bears the weight of its characters' existential crises.
Granted, there is plenty of action to be had, including an opening sequence in which Logan dispatches a group of gang members who try to kill him while stripping his car and a climactic forest battle that finds Logan temporarily returned to his former, more vigorous glory due to an injection of drugs, but Logan takes most of its signals from the western genre, which traditionally invokes violence as a symbol of one's moral standing (the hero is reluctant to use it, while the villain uses it excessively). Logan is the classic western hero, hesitant to get involved, but ultimately proving himself through self-sacrifice to protect and enable a community of which he cannot be a part (it is not incidental that, while holed up in a hotel room in Oklahoma City, Charles and Laura watch 1953's Shane, a film that Charles first saw and loved as a child).
Mangold, who previously directed the western remake 3:10 to Yuma (2007), understands at a core level the intersections of violence and morality and how they play off each other, and while some may find the graphic displays of bloodletting to be over the top, they are fitting in a film in which raw physicality and the specter of mortality play such crucial roles. Cinematographer John Mathieson, who has worked regularly with Ridley Scott since Gladiator (2000), gives the film a rough, arid feel (much of it takes place in various desert landscapes), but avoids obvious clichs like attention-grabbing handheld work or quick zooms. Logan doesn't really look like a "superhero film," or at least what we think one of those should look like, and that's because it isn't. Just like many a great western elegy, including Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969) and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), it is a gritty, bloody, and ultimately heartfelt paean to both the sanctity and the temporality of life.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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