As summer comic-book blockbusters go, The Wolverine is not as elephantine as it could have been. It’s more, well, wolverine—bony, loping, a little shaggy—and, blessedly, director James Mangold doesn’t get bogged down in mythology. You don’t need to diagram the convoluted relationships between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s X-Men characters to figure out what’s going on. All you really need to know is that Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a mutant whose knuckles sprout adamantium claws whenever he’s threatened, has a secret that haunts him: He killed the person he loved best, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and now she keeps appearing in his dreams, wearing a silk nightie and slinging accusatory barbs more piercing than any set of mutant talons.
But like so many of this summer’s comic-book movies, particularly the hollow, forgettable behemoth Iron Man 3, The Wolverine represents a missed opportunity. Mangold tilts the movie heavily toward elaborate action sequences and skimps on the more romantic angles, which is especially frustrating since Jackman is the kind of actor who can deftly handle both. That’s clear from the stunning double opening, two scenes so striking that either could have been used to kick things off. In the first, Wolverine’s long-lived alter ego, Logan, finds himself hiding out in a deep hole on Nagasaki just as the bomb is about to hit. A young Japanese soldier threatens to root him out, but Logan ends up saving his life when that mushroom cloud of doom finally erupts: Just as the soldier is about to commit seppuku, as his fellow warriors have already done, Logan whisks him down into the hidey-hole. The act sets up an intriguing slant: Even though cultural mores dictate that this soldier should be happy to die, there’s something in him that desperately wants to live.
The movie’s “second” opening, set somewhere in present-day Ted Nugent territory, involves a lumbering grizzly bear—Wolverine’s spiritual counterpart is not a wolverine, it turns out—and a bunch of rednecks who defy the wilderness code. Wolverine, righteous dude that he is, shows up at their local dive to set them straight. Things begin to look even more promising when a svelte cutie in red Bettie Page bangs arrives during this barroom brawl. As it turns out, Yukio (Rila Fukushima) has a connection to that soldier Wolverine saved so many years ago; he’s an old man now, and it’s Yukio’s duty to bring Logan to Japan to fulfill his dying wish.
But not long after, The Wolverine’s energy begins to lag. Like so many of today’s action movies, The Wolverine consists mostly of one character or another going from here to there, doing this and that. Wolverine is off to Japan. Awesome! Now what? Yukio drops out of the movie for several long stretches, and Wolverine forms an alliance with her childhood friend, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who’s perhaps more beautiful but far less interesting. Meanwhile, enemies like Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) lurk, hoping to get Wolverine in their clutches. And somewhere in there, Wolverine gets to do some semi-poetic stuff, like open his own chest with his claws.
Jackman is terrific in those moments—he shifts between being affable and tortured as if it were no great shakes. Somehow, that makes Wolverine’s suffering believable. With all his brawn, he can’t escape sadness, and his nightmares form a connect-the-dots roadmap through the story: Time and again he wakes up, only to be looking right into Jean Grey’s living eyes. It’s too good to be true—because, of course, it isn’t—and Jackman packs an extraordinary amount of feeling into these moments. He even looks great in that flat-top hairdo with those little pointed ear-like tufts at the sides.
But not even all of Jackman’s mighty brawn is enough to hold The Wolverine aloft. Mangold and cinematographer Ross Emery try to keep the whole thing relatively sparkling-looking. And for the most part, the action sequences are shot with clarity, instead of just piling up in a noisy mishmash. Even so, The Wolverine—despite being an improvement on Gavin Hood’s muddled 2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine—isn’t worthy of Jackman’s gifts. It’s a reasonably engaging summer diversion, a semi-rousing adventure that doesn’t make you feel robbed of two hours of your life. The tragedy, maybe, is that we’re happy to settle for that.