Looks like Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is hanging up his claws. But before he does, he’s passing the baton on to the next generation. Make that the next, next generation, as his mini-me mutant-in-training is an 11-year-old girl (Dafne Keen). She will have a lot of growing up to do before she can take his place. But she’s on her way. You wouldn’t want to get on her bad side. In a millisecond she could puncture your aorta. Just saying.
The Wolverine film saga started 17 years ago. Back in 2000 he/it was part of the X-Men film, and since then has been in stand-alone Wolverine movies or X-Men sagas nine times. The canine/man is too young to collect Social Security, but he’s too old for the game. Wrinkled. Crotchety. A sour drunkard.
Bringing the character and his journey to a conclusion has been put in the hands of writer/director James Mangold who also worked with Jackman on The Wolverine (2013). His ideas are paired with those of screenwriters Scott Frank and Michael Green. Together they’ve concocted an angst-riddled coda that also sets the stage for a young group of mutants. Get past some slow, initial stagey scenes, wait for the action and the finale will satiate you.
Logan is on the lam, hiding out somewhere in the dusty El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico countryside. He’s making a pitiful living as a chauffeur with his own limo. He’d be an Uber driver but he has way too much attitude. Home is a dilapidated ranch house that he’s sharing with two other misfits: Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino who has a keen ability to track mutants and 90ish Professor X (Patrick Stewart), former leader of The X-Men, whose virulent seizures can stop traffic and paralyze people.
The year is 2029. Most mutants are history, and these three are well past their prime. Barely hanging on. The formerly invincible Logan is losing his super powers. He injects himself with measured doses of a serum, that’s like a Viagra for warriors, to gain back strength. But even this is just a temporary fix.
Out of the blue a mysterious and desperate-sounding nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez, Orange is the New Black), with a kid named Laura (Keen) in tow, tries to persuade Logan to take them to North Dakota. ND is where they intend to join others who are like Laura. Mutants. Gabriela is willing to pay Logan a bundle of cash. He wants no part of her. When he discovers that she’s being hunted, he’s even more reluctant to get involved. But at some point, the hunters, led by a sociopath named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook, Milk), who works for the evil Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), make their presence felt, and Logan and his cohorts go on the run.
The set-up for this last chapter is meticulous. What it seems to lack is an engaging visual style. Deadpool was a great success not only because of a superb script and a very sardonic Ryan Reynolds performance, but also because its first-time director Tim Miller, an animator and visual effects expert, played with the footage. He gave Deadpool an optically appealing look, somewhat reminiscent of the Matrix series. Mangold’s script and direction are too focused on drawn-out, talky scenes. During these times your eyes often linger on interior sets that look like a sound stage and are not realistic. Something doesn’t feel authentic. It’s a while before that changes, but this character-driven film does find its way.
Cinematographer John Mathieson (X-Men: The First Class, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) lights scenes well, but his camerawork seems stiff, which is most noticeable during non-action scenes. François Audouy’s (The Wolverine) production design and the art direction by Chris Farmer (Man of Steel) work in shades of taupe and beige, making the U.S./Mexico scenes, especially the chase sequences, somewhat reminiscent of Road Warrior. It’s not easy to detect how much influence editors Michael McCusker (The Girl on the Train) and Dirk Westervelt (Notorious) had on the final product. But if the opening, talk-heavy scenes had been shorter, the film’s initial pacing might have been more rhythmic from the get-go.
Always on cue, and ready for work is Jackman. Watching him help the Wolverine character evolve is like charting his career: He’s getting better with age. His performances are more nuanced. More emotional. More depth. More dimensions. It’s a joy to see him perform. As he brings this iconic role to its conclusion, sometimes playing the same beast at two different ages, you’ll be satisfied and somewhat sad that this is the end.
Dafne Keen, in her first film, gives a blank stare that could scare a lion. You never question her strength, agility or killer instinct. Boyd Holbrook as the evil and relentless mutant hunter is snide and vile. Stewart and Merchant make entertaining sidemen.
To the filmmakers’ credit, there is a poignant subplot about a family who becomes a role model. Dad (Eriq La Salle, E.R.), mom (Elise Neal, TV’s The Hughleys) and son (Quincy Fouse, The Goldbergs) are on a highway transporting horses. After an incident, the animals escape and Logan, traveling with Laura and Professor X, helps to retrieve them. The family is grateful, gracious and gives the fugitives a place to spend the night. The very sage Professor X tells the emotionally-distant Logan that this is what a loving family is like. The encounter helps Logan bond with Laura.
The significance of this passage shouldn’t be lost. The movie sets up the “ideal” family as African-American. It’s a social statement that would not have happened 30 years ago in a Hollywood movie.
Don’t be put off by the slow beginning. Don’t be deterred by Logan’s incessant bitterness. At some point the film builds to a thoroughly satisfying ending. It takes you to a place where the most cantankerous mutant makes a sacrifice that ensures the existence of the next generation of his kind. The end is worth the wait.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.