Heavy lies the crown on director James Mangold's head; not only does he have the usual cavalcade of comic book fanboys ready to rip him limb from limb if he doesn't deliver on his promises, but with a fan-base that has already been burned once - by way of Gavin Hood's flaccid prequel, X-Men Origins: Wolverine - the stakes are double deadly for The Wolverine. Though perhaps not the authoritative take on Logan's classic comic book excursion to Tokyo that many had hoped for, Mangold still finds star Hugh Jackman at his grizzled best, and accompanied as he is by a few breathless set-pieces, that seems to just about be enough. Here we find Logan (Jackman) still haunted by the events of Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand, in which he was forced to kill his love, Jean Grey aka Phoenix (Famke Janssen). Her death at his hands weighs heavily on him, as he is lured to Japan by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who claims that her boss, Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), is dying and wishes to say farewell to the man who saved his life during World War II's Nagasaki bombing. However, when Logan arrives, he finds a bizarre proposition awaiting him - an offer to be relieved of his regenerative "curse", an offer that soon enough becomes a reality as Logan finds himself stripped of his powers by the deadly Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), while struggling to protect Yashida's prized granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), from assassination. The Wolverine is a movie that begins well, though not necessarily as it means to go on; the opening act does a sublime job of building both world and character, as Logan is jetted off to Tokyo and the array of Yashida family members are introduced. Meanwhile, Jean Grey makes her presence known through a few perfunctory if pleasant flashbacks which hammer home the central thematic point - death is always going to surround Wolverine, and there's not much he can do about that.
For a good 40 minutes, Mangold has this down pat; one sizzling set-piece is quickly succeeded by another - the latter an utterly ridiculous battle atop a 300-mph train - and Mangold does a firm job covering all the angles while nailing the requisite impact under a PG-13 banner. However, when Logan is brought to a standstill, so too is the movie. Once the man is forced to examine his vulnerability, the film loses much momentum and doesn't ever fully recover; seeing Logan without his badass, Devil-may-care attitude isn't all that fun to watch, nor is his episode spent shacking up with Mariko particularly engaging. I, for one, have just about had enough of tentpole movies depriving our heroes of their toys and forcing them to spend the rest of the film prising them back from the enemy; it worked well for James Bond and Bruce Wayne, but for Tony Stark and Logan, it is only fitfully successful at best. Act two slows down and deals with Logan facing his own mortality, which should be fascinating, but the film's failure to place him in much palpable danger drains it of the inherent tension - and that's not whether Logan will live (we know he won't die), but whether Mariko will. Instead, this scenario is wasted on relatively forgettable dialogues - all the more so because we know exactly how this romantic pairing is going to end - and some truly peculiar, even eccentric attempts at humour, notably as the two are awkwardly forced to check in to a "love hotel" together while attempting to lie low.
Naturally, the meat of the action takes place in the film's final act, though oddly goes entirely the other way, shooting too far off the beaten path into balls-out absurdity. A bout of ridiculous body horror feels particularly misjudged, topped only by a late-day plot twist that renders much of the first act relatively inert, or worse still, nonsensical (and sure to annoy us all on repeat viewings, if we will be so inclined). As such, it's hard to be all that invested in who Logan finally ends up clashing claws with, while the Viper - who received much attention in the film's marketing - is somewhat underused in the finale despite a decent build-up. There's much to like in James Mangold's take on X-Men's mutton-chopped superhero - it's visually striking, Jackman is as great as ever, and the supporting turns are passionately performed - but little mistaking the overall wonkiness of the enterprise, which fleets gingerly from the water-tight intensity of the opening reel to soggy soap opera and then, finally, chaotic cartoonishness. One can't help but feel Darren Aronofsky's R-rated interpretation might have been more interesting; after all, wouldn't the 3D presentation have been better employed with Logan's spikes protruding through the countless goons' bodies? Instead, the prohibitive editing feels as inorganic as it ever has in the X-Men franchise; why make a movie about a guy whose job it is to stab lots of people to death if you're not going to carry that through to its reality? Though leaps and bounds ahead of Hood's effort, most will end up expecting more from such a long-gestating and seemingly considered take. However, a tantalising, roof-raising mid-credits scene does indeed promise plenty for the future... The Wolverine is in UK cinemas July 25th and US cinemas July 26th.
Frequently sleep-deprived film addict and video game obsessive who spends more time than is healthy in darkened London screening rooms. Follow his twitter on @ShaunMunroFilm or e-mail him at shaneo632 [at] gmail.com.