“The Wolverine” (James Mangold, 2013)
The giant robot was a dead giveaway. The second trailer for this second (and much improved) offshoot of the X-Men franchise ended with a dramatic shot that signaled a reinvention of a modestly popular villain. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) stood ready for battle in a lab of some kind; a gigantic, robotic samurai swung its sword. The passing fan of the X-universe recognized that villain as The Silver Samurai, who (sorry about this, non-nerds) is an illegitimate son of a Yakuza boss, a mutant with the power to create a tachyon field that allows him to swing his sword through almost anything. He was sort of easy to defeat, but interesting because his half-sister, Mariko, was Wolverine’s true love.
He was not a robot.
Lucky for us, sort of, the trailer provided a false lead. In Mangold’s film, based largely on a straightforward Darren Aranovsky treatment of a classic Wolverine story, there are several Silver Samurai. They all belong to a family, Yashida, sprung from the loins of a Nagasaki survivor whom Wolverine saved by covering him with his fast-healing body. When we re-encounter our hero, he’s bumming around the great outdoors, bonding with bears and getting into fights with hunters, interrupted when the man he saved sends an adopted granddaughter-cum-action hero to bring his hero to Japan. (Yes, this is another movie in which basically every Japanese character is an expert martial artist. What did you expect?)
The patriarch, Ichiro, has spent the post-war years amassing a Bezos-ian fortune, and from his high-tech deathbed he assumes that Wolverine is so depressed that he’ll willfully hand over his mutant healing factor in order for a chance to age and die. When Wolverine refuses, he is (major spoiler) implanted with a parasite that suppresses his healing factor, in order to make him easy to subdue, so that Ichiro can execute a master plan of 1) faking his death, 2) leaving his smart but unready granddaughter Mariko in charge of his company, and 3) draining Wolverine’s healing factor anyfuckingway, by sawing off his claws and draining the… mutantness from his bone marrow.
Pretty stupid, right? It’s a shame, because the source material and the first two acts adapted from it are absolutely stellar. Many a Wolverine fan came to the character via an eponymous 1982 miniseries written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller. The cover of the paperback collecting this series portrayed Wolverine going shithouse on a bunch of ninjas. That summed up the plot — in the comics universe, the Yashida clan were Yakuza, and Wolverine killed the patriarch while falling in love with Mariko. Remember the post-credits shot in the horrendous first Wolverine film, where the hero’s pounding shots at a bar in Japan? That was a signal to the fans that the sequel would bring him to the country where he has the best, most character-enhancing adventures. Also, he goes shithouse on ninjas.
The first two acts of this film do borrow that structure, and the parasite macguffin adds plenty of drama — Wolverine is “reduced” to a mere, Vin Diesel-like action hero who can still run after being shot a bunch of times, but tires and needs to be patched up. But who told the producers that a mere series of fight scenes — oh, you know, the kind that make every Bruce Lee movie work so well — wouldn’t have been enough for a tentpole summer movie? The dopey super-science plot isn’t very satisfying, and it plays around, once again, with the basic metaphor of the X-universe.
Look: The mutant gene is supposed to be metaphor for endemic ethnic identify or sexual preference. In the 1960s, it was a metaphor for civil rights; by the 1980s, it became a metaphor for gay rights. There was a period in the 1990s where a sort of mutant AIDS (the Legion virus, created by a supervillain, much like AIDS was created by the CIA and the Bilderberg Group) felled a bunch of innocent heroes. But these fucking movies! In the first X-Men, there’s a machine that “speeds up evolution,” and in the first Wolverine spin-off, there’s a science project adding mutant traits to a human guinea pig. No, no, no — we do not need this. Make mine mutant. Give me allegorical outcasts who go shithouse on ninjas.
“Only God Forgives” (Nicholas Wending Refn, 2013)
Whatever crimes The Wolverine may commit, it is far, far away from being the worst “anglo expat fights his demons in Asia” film of the year. That honor goes to this piece of complete trash, from a director who alternates between brilliant films (Bronson, Drive), and pretentious film lens experiments (Valhalla Rising).
Jesus, where to start? Julian (Ryan Gosling, acting like a dull-eyed parody of himself) owns a boxing gym with his brother Bobby. The gym is actually a cover for a heroin business, though that doesn’t matter to the plot at all. Bobby, a pedophile, beats up a pimp at a high-class bordello, and rapes and murders his underaged daughter. Quite understandably, he’s murdered by a katana-wielding supercop (Vithaya Pansringarm, acting like a parody of Lee Van Cleef). Also understandably, Bobby and Julian’s mother (played by Kristin Scott Thomas, acting like Ellen Barkin as directed by Ed Wood) arrives in Bangkok to kill a bunch of people and avenge Bobby’s death.
What I described sounds vaguely interesting. Trust me — it ain’t. Refn declares war on pacing, plotting, and even timing, setting up shot after shot where his character sit for a few seconds before saying a line. It’s meant to be disorienting, but it comes off as ridiculous, never more so then when Julian finally gets tired of his mother sending failed assassins after the supercop and challenges him to a fight. Here is how that scene goes.
– The supercop and his friends are standing silently.
– Julian leaves the bar they were both at that night.
– One of the cop’s friends, after noticing Julian, asks Julian (after a beat) “Do you know who that is?”
– Julian says nothing as the camera lingers on him.
– Julian walks slowly over to the supercop.
– The supercop silently, slowly turns his head to Julian.
– After a long pause, Julian asks: “Wanna fight?”
The ensuing fight provides a good example of the movie’s zombiefied style.
I wanted to appreciate this; really, I did. I don’t demand or even want a movie to give me characters I can root for. But here, Refn combines dull archetypes and a forgettable plot with striking but unoriginal images. (He’s hardly the first director to realize that red light and shadows give the sense of impending violence.) If you find yourself impressed, go watch Drive again and see how much better this style works when tethered to a point.