Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: The Wolverine (2013)

The Wolverine (2013)

The Wolverine is an enjoyable film to watch, but not a great one. It suffers from a problem that has become increasingly prevalent in summer blockbusters -- namely, deliberately withholding key plot details until it's time to give the audience yet another jolt of surprise, rather than revealing them as they would serve the story. I've always felt that this trend towards mystery for the sake of it was just a bit too reminiscent of all the worst stereotypes about daytime soap operas, and it's annoying to see this become a standard, accepted procedure in Hollywood screenwriting. Had this film's big twist at the end, the reveal that a certain character had been masterminding all of the events that had taken place, come earlier in the film, it not only would've prevented the plot from becoming needlessly convoluted, but it would've added some genuine stakes to the third-act fight scenes. Instead, the twist is the climax, only occurring right at the end of the final battle between Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and the Silver Samurai, a giant robot samurai with adamantium armor. (Not a spoiler, given that it's the big money shot of the trailers.)

Allow me to go off on a tangent here. There are some films where mystery is very important to the plot. Crime dramas, for instance. Police procedurals. Whodunits. Giallos. In cases like these, the plot is the mystery, with the characters trying to find out what is going or, or what had happened, as much as the viewer is. However, in the last decade a new phenomenon has arisen. This phenomenon, known as the "mystery box," was coined by J.J. Abrams in a TED talk in 2007, talking about why his hit sci-fi show Lost (then in its third season) was so focused on mystery elements. For those of us who don't have 18 minutes to spare, he says that, at times, the mystery of wondering what is coming next can create more enjoyment than actually knowing what is happening, comparing the experience to a "mystery magic box" that he had in his youth but never opened. He talks about successful works that used mystery to serve the story, such as many horror films where the monster is kept in the shadows (specifically citing Jaws and Alien), and a scene from The Graduate where two characters are talking in a car and we never hear what they are saying. The idea of the mystery box lies at the center of Abrams' creative process, explaining why so many of the films he's been involved in (such as Cloverfield, Super 8, and most recently Star Trek Into Darkness) deliberately withhold information from viewers in both the marketing and in the film itself.

Here's the thing: this is a fundamental element of storytelling. There's a reason why talking about spoilers is generally considered poor practice, and why I usually put up spoiler warnings when I get into them (unless I hated the movie, in which case I'm actively trying to dissuade you from seeing it). Too many filmmakers, Abrams included, have latched onto the idea of the mystery box and abused it as an excuse for lazy writing, throwing viewers curveballs simply to keep them on their toes. This video by Bob Chipman of The Escapist explains it better than I ever could, reminding us how M. Night Shyamalan's career and reputation went into the toilet because people learned to expect mysteries and surprises in his films, making his twist endings tiresome. Abrams was right about how audiences like to be surprised, but he never mentioned how audiences can also learn how to see surprises coming. And right now, the entire blockbuster film industry is becoming like Shyamalan, overly reliant on twists for their own sake even when they mangle the plot.

The Wolverine is a perfect example of this in action. Reveals of key plot details are timed not so that they serve the plot, but in order to sucker-punch the audience with a new surprise, even if they result in the film becoming astoundingly difficult to follow. Our plot here is about the yakuza (the Japanese mob) and a mega-corporation owned by an elderly Nagasaki survivor trying to kidnap the elderly man's granddaughter/heiress for reasons that are never properly explained until the end. Oh, and Wolverine has lost his healing powers and is trying to figure out how to get them back. Oh, and there are ninjas too. Oh, and Wolverine has constant dreams about Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) that do little to move the film forward. Without the necessary explanation that this film doesn't give us until, literally, the very end, its plot is a tangled mess of twists and turns as thick as overgrown kudzu vines that loop over each other and which I couldn't be bothered to try and stay interested in. The worst part is that, once the key information is finally revealed, a lot of stuff suddenly starts to make sense, but by that time, you'll have given up trying to follow the plot. Had this been revealed at the end of the second act, it would've not only made the plot much easier to keep up with, but it would've made the final showdown that much more involving, with my interest fully invested in the goings-on.

As it stands, though, we get a lot of really sweet action scenes that were more than able to hold my interest even if the story wasn't all that interesting. Director James Mangold keeps the action toned down, restricted largely to fistfights, shootouts, and sword duels between human beings. In a summer that's been dominated by spectacle and sensory overload, it's refreshing to see such comparatively intimate and personal fight scenes, especially when they were all this well-shot. Wolvie's main superpowers, after all, are his claws and his rapid healing, and a film that focuses on him, the action scenes should be mostly built around one-on-one confrontations and brawls. It helps that Hugh Jackman not only looks like a beast here (he could've stepped out of an '80s action movie), bringing a raw presence to the action scenes, but he also manages to carry this film's dramatic weight, never looking like he's lost his touch since the last film. No slouches either are Rila Fukushima as the modern-day ninja assassin Yukio, who carries her action scenes as well as Jackman did and comes off like a Japanese Milla Jovovich, and Svetlana Khodchenkova as the evil scientist/mutant assassin Dr. Greene (aka Viper), who brings a wicked sexiness to the proceedings. Tao Okamoto and Will Yun Lee round out a largely Asian supporting cast that also does very well for itself here, making me wish that they all had a better script to work with. Only Famke Janssen didn't impress me much here, largely because her role is little more than a glorified cameo meant solely to link this film with past entries in the series and give viewers some eye candy.

Score: 3 out of 5

A note to Hollywood screenwriters: please cut it out with turning your films into great big mysteries just for the sake of it. That said, there's still enough good in this film to at least make it worth a matinee, a great way to cool down after an overheated summer movie season.

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