Film

Say goodnight, Wolverine

Logan

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Seventeen years after X-Men made him a movie star, Hugh Jackman ends his run as the Wolverine—at least for now—with a neo-Western road trip through the heartland.

As its title suggests, Logan strips away the superhero bells and whistles, cast-of-thousands spectacle and labyrinthine twists of the X-Men franchise to focus on its most tormented mutant, aka Wolverine. Seamlessly melding Marvel mythology with Western mythology, James Mangold has crafted an affectingly stripped-down stand-alone feature, one that draws its strength from Hugh Jackman’s nuanced turn as a reluctant, all but dissipated hero. That he rises to the occasion when a child is placed in his care is the stuff of a well-worn narrative template, yet it finds a fair level of urgency in this telling.

For fans who are intimately versed in the franchise’s playbook (and the comic-book source material), this chapter should prove emotionally satisfying. For those who can’t recite the plotlines of all nine of the preceding X-Men films, the new feature’s noirish, end-of-an-era vibe is an involving hook.

In his final turn in one of the defining roles of his career (although, given the plasticity of the Marvel Universe, never say never to resurrections), Jackman is essentially an ex-X-Man. The year is 2029, and superhuman mutants are about to join tigers on the extinction list. As far as anyone knows, there have been no mutant births in a quarter-century, and those few who remain live in an abandoned smelting plant on the outskirts of El Paso. It’s the sort of industrial wasteland that instantly spells dystopia.

Those remaining few mutants number precisely three. X-Men leader Charles (a superb Patrick Stewart) is now a nonagenarian whose legendary telepathic powers are not always within his control; as with many a mere mortal, his geriatric brain doesn’t function as it once did, and the result is seizures of bone-rattling intensity for those around him. Tending to his care are Logan, now a hard-drinking limo driver whose unearthly aptitude for self-healing is on the wane, and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino mutant with tracking abilities who handles domestic chores for the trio while sheltering himself from the daylight.

The lives of this last-of-their-kind collective are by no means easy or serene, but they can at least count on a certain routine. Then a young girl with a ferocious gaze, Laura (Dafne Keen), arrives on their rusty doorstep, along with a wad of cash and the desperate final request of her caretaker, Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez, of Orange Is the New Black), that Logan get her to Canada ASAP. For reasons that a smartphone video makes clear, Canada would be a safe haven for a child who has more in common with Logan than he’d care to admit—a connection that Charles perceives even before she reveals her Wolverine-like metallic claws and puts them to lethal use.

Laura is being hunted by X-Men adversary Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his paramilitary cyborg Reavers on behalf of Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), who heads Transigen, the nefarious bioengineering program that created her. National borders are a key factor in this story, not only because of the asylum that Canada represents. In the tradition of Big Pharma corporate villainy, Rice has evaded American legal oversight and conducted his experiments on Laura and countless other children, and the women who bore them, in Mexico.

While Caliban is taken hostage, Logan, Laura, and Charles hightail it out of El Paso, no easy feat when the Reavers are closing in on all sides and your escape vehicle is a boat-size limousine. With nods to Unforgiven and explicit references to Shane—and extended sequences of brutal violence involving those adamantium-blade claws—this newly formed trio’s trip from the Texas desert to the Dakotas taps into notions of middle America, both geographic and psychic.

There’s poignancy and humor, none of it overstated, when they have to play normal during an encounter with a ranch family. Charles, at his most clear-eyed and openhearted, is the catalyst throughout the sequence, which begins with his telepathic calming of spooked horses after an accident on the highway, a scene as lyrical as it is charged with emotion.

Stewart is effortlessly compelling as a man whose attentiveness to the world around him runs deep, even as his own tethers to it are fraying. Keen, in her first big-screen role, makes the mostly silent Laura both kinetic and inwardly coiled, a quick-study observer of a world long denied her. And when called upon to give a vintage movie reference new resonance, she pulls it off with poetic vulnerability.

Even as the film’s energy drains in the later going, much like Logan’s healing powers, and long after the fight scenes have lapsed into overkill, Jackman makes his superhero the real deal. The actor, who reportedly conceived the basic thrust of the story, takes the ever-conflicted Logan/Wolverine to full-blooded depths, and the result is a far more cohesive and gripping film than his previous collaboration with Mangold, 2013’s The Wolverine.

It’s not just the valedictory aspect of the story. And only time will tell if we ever again see a Jackman-portrayed Wolverine. But with his limp, his scraggly beard and his reading glasses, this middle-aged version, caught between his humanity and the engineering that makes him an instrument of destruction, is the hero we need him to be. Ultimately, it’s not just Laura’s predicament that he understands, but his own.

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