Blu-ray Review: The Wolverine

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Of the major superhero franchise films of 2013, The Wolverine is the most distinctive, marking a welcome return to form for the title character. Though ultimately a strong performer internationally, the film did middling business domestically. Besides Hugh Jackman in his signature role, there’s absolutely zero star power and that may have contributed to the lukewarm commercial reception. It’s also a decidedly more introspective film, more interested in the inner workings of Logan’s psyche than in visceral thrills. But for anyone who would rather forget X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) ever happened, rest assured that this one is a standalone film that flies miles above that prequel.

Jackman, despite having played Logan in four previous feature films, has never been better. The Wolverine explores Logan’s struggle with his inability to age and die as a normal human does. We open with a staggering flashback sequence set during World War II in Nagasaki, moments before the U.S. drop the atomic bomb. Logan, a POW at the time, saves a Japanese soldier named Yashida by shielding him from the blast while hiding down a deep well. Yashida is haunted and fascinated by—not to mention envious of—Logan’s ability to instantly heal (the heat generated by the bomb burned the skin off his body).

Wolverine casino (380x253).jpgNow an elderly cancer patient, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) has gone to great lengths to track down Logan, reclusive ever since the events of X-Men: The Last Stand in which he was forced to kill the love of his life, fellow mutant Jean Grey. Yashida has devised a way to transfer Logan’s regenerative properties to his own body, leaving Logan with the ability to lead the life of a normal mortal man. Haunted by nightmares/hallucinations of Jean (Famke Janssen), Logan is living off the grid in the Yukon when he encounters Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a prescient young woman with highly advanced swordsman skills. She’s been sent by Yashida to carry out the dying man’s wishes.

Wolverine Yukio (134x200).jpgIf it sounds like a complex set-up, that’s one of the things The Wolverine does so well. It lays out its story in a straightforward but compelling manner, treating its characters intelligently (for the most part). Once in Japan, Logan meets—and soon finds himself protecting—Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto). She’s the sole heir to Yashida’s business empire, something that marks her as a target for the Yakuza. Logan’s meeting with Yashida went exceptionally poorly. He leaves with a mysterious inability to rapidly heal.

The wild card is a woman purported to be Yashida’s oncologist, but who soon reveals herself as the Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a mutant who sheds her skin like a snake and spits venom. She’s also the film’s weakest link, due partly to Khodchenkova’s awkward performance. She’s a very beautiful woman, but her dialogue appears to have been rather obviously dubbed. Based on interviews I’ve heard, Khodchenkova’s natural, Russian-speaking voice sounds nothing like what we hear in the film (lip sync is even a bit loose at times).

But it’s not just the flat acting that’s a detriment, since director James Mangold and screenwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank seem to have plopped Viper into the plot without a clear motivation. This leads to problems in the third act, when Viper emerges as a dual threat alongside another new supervillain, an adamantium construction called the Silver Samurai.

Wolverine Viper (380x312).jpgThe final conflict kind of comes out of the blue, as if the producers were concerned by the relative lack of action set pieces (Yashida’s funeral culminates with a thrilling bullet train fight, but that’s all in the first act). After a daringly unconventional superhero adventure that boasts heavy dramatic, soul-searching leanings, the ending devolves into disappointingly ho-hum, effects-driven shenanigans. Luckily, Mangold pulls it together for an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Sometimes a mediocre climax can sink a film, but The Wolverine’s strengths are great enough to keep it afloat.

Ross Emery’s digital cinematography looks quite stunning on Fox’s 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer. The Wolverine plays out largely in darkness, yet the clarity and detail during the nighttime sequences are striking. But there’s a lot more here than night and shadows, with the sometimes intentionally over-lighted Jean Grey sequences looking very dramatic. Bright daytime scenes, like Yashida’s funeral, allow for the greatest display of fine detail. All in all, a top notch visual presentation.

Wolverine Yukio 2 (134x200).jpgDynamics are the key to the success of The Wolverine’s DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix. There’s much more than just bombast, although there’s plenty of that at appropriate times (the climatic sequence is very busy sonically). One of the best examples of the careful placement of sound effects occurs during the bullet train segment. From the clanging of Logan’s claws to the whizzing of objects as the train speeds along, the mix truly puts the viewer in the center of the action. Subtler sonic environments, such as Logan in the Yukon forest, are equally impressive, offering the kind of detailed, realistic immersion that’s special even in the Blu-ray era.

As for supplements, keep in mind that the 3D Blu-ray edition contains the extended cut of The Wolverine, which runs about 12 minutes longer (it’s also available for purchase via Fox Digital HD). That edition includes a James Mangold commentary that isn’t on the standard Blu-ray edition. What is here is a 53-minute ‘making of’ piece called “The Path of a Ronin.” Although a little promo/hype-driven at times, this is a solid look at all aspects of the production.

wolverine ninja (380x255).jpgReading between the lines, it’s not hard to detect a certain amount of indifference towards Svetlana Khodchenkova (much more deserving props are bestowed upon Rila Fukushima and Tao Okamoto). Also included is an alternate ending (it amounts to an extra few shots during the final minute of the movie) and a tantalizing “X-Men: Days of Future Past Set Tour” hosted by director Bryan Singer. The “Second Screen” app allows for additional material to be viewed on mobile devices.

The Wolverine Blu-ray combo pack also includes a standard DVD and digital copy. Just remember not to hit stop as soon as the credits roll. The mid-credits teaser scene that sets up Days of Future Past is a doozy that no X-Men fan will want to miss.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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