A refreshing summer cocktail of action-movie staples, "The Wolverine" combines the bracingly adult flavor of everyone's favorite mutant antihero tortured, boozy X-Man Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine with the fizzy effervescence of several mixers from the cabinet of Japanese genre cinema: noirish Yakuza crime drama, samurai derring-do and ninja acrobatics. It goes down super-smooth but packs a punch, erasing not only the memory of Marvel's last foray into the Wolverine mythos the 2009 stinker "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" but also washing away the more recent unpleasant aftertaste of this summer's other Tokyo-set action thriller, "Pacific Rim."
After a brief prologue, the film opens on the titular hero (Hugh Jackman), who is now a virtually homeless alcoholic living in a squalid encampment in the woods, where he's plagued by nightmares starring his late lady love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). In short order, however, our hero is on his way to Tokyo, escorted by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a magenta-haired Harajuku girl whose powers of persuasion are enhanced by her skill with a samurai sword. A mutant with the ability to foretell people's deaths, she's a great character, hinting at a soul as dark as Logan's. My one complaint is that the film doesn't do more with her; she and Logan are kindred spirits.
Yukio has been sent to retrieve Logan on behalf of her elderly patron, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who is dying. As we learn in the prologue, Logan was once a World War II prisoner outside Nagasaki, where he saved Yashida's life after the atomic bomb was dropped.
Yashida, it seems, wants to say more than goodbye and thank you to his old friend. He has summoned Logan to take advantage of his healing powers, whether the world-weary mutant is ready to relinquish them or not. That theme that Logan's immortality is both a blessing and a curse, and that Logan might actually welcome death has been explored before, especially in the "Origins" film. There, it was flogged to numbing effect. Here, it's a garnish that doesn't get in the way of the fun.
Where "The Wolverine" delivers isn't in plot, but in its core dynamic, which places Logan in the familiar, if somewhat paternalistic, role of savior. That's a welcome change from "Origins," in which his primary motivation was ugly revenge. It's perhaps fitting that his character here, when we first encounter him in the woods, all bearded and long-haired, looks a bit like Jesus Christ. It's symbolism that's driven home by all the bullet wounds that he sustains, and which no longer instantaneously heal, leaving bloody stigmata.
There's nothing particularly heavy about "The Wolverine." That is, other than a suit of souped-up samurai armor that's made of the same indestructible metal as Wolverine's retractable claws. Surely you've seen the image in all the bus-shelter ads? No? Then you're clearly not paying attention. Everyone else who has been will not be disappointed, least of all by the closing-credits teaser.