Warning: minor spoilers for "The Wolverine" are ahead.
He's the best there is at what he does -- and in "The Wolverine," what he does is very nice.
Hugh Jackman wanted to bring the berserker-rage to Japan, and he got the job done. "The Wolverine" is by far and away the Australian actor's best work as the claw-popping mutant, his sixth time playing the character. It's not a flawless victory; there are some major problems with the movie, particularly in the third act. But Jackman's latest is a surprisingly strong effort, especially when measured against the disastrous "X-Men Origins: Wolverine."
Much like the first "X-Men" movie, "The Wolverine" begins with a haunting look at history. This time, it's the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, from the perspective of a POW camp. An imprisoned Logan protects one of his captors from the nuclear blast, using his own body as a human shield. The soldier -- a man named Yashida -- watches his flame-scorched savior regenerate before his very eyes. He's forever changed by the experience.
In the present, Logan's a far cry from the hero we see in Nagasaki. He's living in the wilderness, surrounded by a shelter of rocks and empty booze bottles. He's in desperate need of a shower and a haircut. What he really wants, however, is a quick and quiet death. Logan's haunted by the ghost of Jean Grey, the woman he loved, and the woman he murdered not long ago. He's a broken man, a soldier without a calling -- until the calling finds him in the form of Yukio, a pink-haired mystery woman with some serious sword skills.
Yukio tells Logan that he's wanted in Japan: Yashida, the man Logan saved so long ago, is now very rich, very powerful and very close to death. One of his dying requests is to meet with Logan one last time. But Yashida doesn't just want to say goodbye. He wants to make Logan an offer of a lifetime: a chance to surrender his immortality.
Once Logan hits Japan, the plot doesn't really matter. Plot is not "The Wolverine's" strongest suit, especially when you're through the final act and able to look back on all that's come before, warts and all. (There are many, many warts.) What matters is tone. What matters is the world that director James Mangold and his team have built. What matters is Japan. It's beautifully rendered, a modern-day fantasy world populated by Yakuza hitmen, ninja assassins, and overly-proud samurai warriors. All of them are dangerous opponents for Logan, some of the fiercest foes we've ever seen him fight on film -- an impressive accomplishment when you consider who he's battled on the big-screen before.
Mangold recently said he didn't want to compete with other summer blockbusters on the epic, destructive scale we've seen from the likes of "Man of Steel" and "Pacific Rim." Instead, he focused in on intensity and pressure, eyes and wounds. Mission accomplished, Mangold. The action is tight and grounded, brutal in its violence and beautifully-rendered throughout. It's not hyper-violent and it's not overly bathed in blood, but every hit hurts. If you're coming to "The Wolverine" for nothing more than Logan lashing out against deadly assassins, then you'll walk away fulfilled.
But that's not all you get from "The Wolverine." You also get high-caliber performances. Especially impressive are Rila Fukushima as Yukio and Tao Okamoto as Mariko, Yashida's granddaughter and the target of the film's many players. "The Wolverine" is the first feature-film for both actresses. You wouldn't know that from their work here. Fukushima is the breakout, soulful and badass as Logan's "bodyguard." Okamoto is graceful and gorgeous as Mariko, even if the story doesn't always serve her talents. Both performers live up to and surpass the pressure of making their first movie. Let's hope we see more of them soon.
Really, all of the main players are fantastic. Veteran actor Hiroyuki Sanada does reliably great work as Shingen Yashida, Mariko's father, a man with a score to settle. Will Yun Lee is extraordinarily cool as Harada, the deadly ninja at the core of some of the movie's greatest scenes. Even Svetlana Khodchenkova delivers an impressive turn as Viper, a literally toxic mutant that stands in Logan's way. The Russian actress speaks very little English in real-life, and while her true accent shows up uninvited at times, she approaches the character with so much confidence that you can forgive most of her flaws.
Most, but not all.
"The Wolverine" is 80% standalone Jackman, a skillful and soulful examination of a wandering warrior finding and fighting his way through foreign territory to rediscover familiar ground. The other 20% is an "X-Men" movie, the one you've seen in trailers. That movie isn't very good, and it mostly rears its head in the final act. Viper plays into that, as does the Silver Samurai, a character that many fans have wanted to see on screen for quite some time. Sadly, the ball is dropped. The Silver Samurai looks ridiculous and his role in the plot is absurd. It's a hard topic to talk about without diving into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say, this portion of the movie feels incredibly out of place with the elegantly-crafted everything that comes before. It's a disappointment.
Still, the misfire of a finale doesn't tear the good stuff to shreds. The look and sound and feel of the film, the choreography of the action, and the performances are all so solid that the weak-points pale in comparison. That's not even mentioning Jean Grey. Her role in the film is minor, but crucial. Jackman and Famke Janssen get to explore the relationship between Logan and Jean in greater depth than ever before -- ironic, considering she has maybe five minutes of screen-time here, and, well, you know, she's dead.
As a standalone adventure set in the "X-Men" Cinematic Universe we've come to know and (sometimes) love, "The Wolverine" is unexpectedly good. Fans have few reasons to trust that "X-Men" movies are going to hit the right marks, thanks to blunders like "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." And yes, this movie has its share of creative mistakes. But even as the movie falls from great heights and lands with a thud, its legs aren't broken for long. Like Logan, "The Wolverine" heals and beats those wounds with sheer ferocity. It's well worth seeing.
And, to answer the question on everyone's minds: Yes, you should stick around through the credits.