Hugh Jackman’s "The Wolverine" comes close, but no cigar

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Hugh Jackman in "The Wolverine."

Few movies shit the bed as spectacularly in their third acts as The Wolverine, a second attempt to give Hugh Jackman’s knuckle-knived berserker Logan a stand-alone franchise apart from his mutant pals in the X-Men pictures. The previous effort, 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was a debacle on all fronts, notoriously employing a deus ex machina of “amnesia bullets,” which sounded like sweet relief to anybody who actually sat through the fool thing. The title of this entry feels like a sheepish admission on the part of the producers: Ignore that last one—this is the Wolverine movie.

And, for a while, it is. Tormented after having to kill his dreamgirl-gone-bad Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) at the end of 2006’s awful X-Men: The Last Stand, Jackman’s exhausted immortal has retreated inside a whiskey bottle somewhere in the Canadian wilderness. He’s unearthed by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a cherry-haired psychic with a sword who’s employed by one very, very old friend of Logan’s. Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) is a captain of Tokyo industry on a nifty futuristic deathbed. Seeking to square a life-debt that’s been outstanding since Nagasaki, he offers our hero the gift of mortality.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan, and soon Logan’s on the run with Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), heiress to billions and thus marked for death by the Yakuza, various ninjas and a few rotten relatives. What makes The Wolverine so refreshing for so long is its smallness of scale; there’s no apocalyptic CGI grandeur—just a lot of close-quartered fights full of sharp, pointy objects. Journeyman director James Mangold (Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) hews to clean compositions, clearly defined action geography and striking use of the Japanese locations. It’s tightly focused, even intimate by comic book standards.

Haunted by dreams in which Janssen beckons him to join her in the great beyond, Jackman’s suffering a mysterious cramp in his superhuman healing abilities. Suddenly, Logan is vulnerable, in more ways than one. Mangold keeps the tone somber and muted. The Wolverine is admirably lean and character-driven—until all of the sudden, it isn’t anymore.

Tossing aside everything that had made the picture distinctive, the film’s final segment retreats to a generic industrial space for a block-headed cacophony of preposterous plot twists and weightless computer generated destruction, complete with the now-obligatory mid-credits teaser for the next installment. Such a shame, as this was almost a real movie.

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