Around the Flixist office we’ve been discussing the screenwriting book Save the Cat, which has become Hollywood’s sort of point-by-point playbook for how to put a film together since it came out. It’s made a lot of movies feel a lot alike since they’ll follow almost the exact same beats and use all the same tricks. The Wolverine might be one of the best examples of this check-list style format.
You’re already rolling your eyes, right? Here’s the thing. The reason all of Hollywood uses the book’s formula is because it works and when used well it churns out a good movie. The Wolverine is a perfect example of when it works well.
Director: James Mangold
Release Date: July 26, 2013
20th Century Fox must have learned something from how Marvel was handling its Avengers heroes. They’re finally pulling together their plethora of X-Men characters into a cohesive plot with X:Men: First Class being the first installment and The Wolverine being the next step leading into Days of Future Past. Thus, we see Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) post X-Men: Last Stand struggling to find himself after killing Jean Grey (Famke Jansen). Enter Yukio (Rila Fukushima), who is sent by a dying man that Logan saved during WWII to bring him to Japan. Once there Logan learns that he may be able to lose his mutant ability to regenerate his quickly and thus not live “forever.” Of course things are never as they seem and everything starts to fall apart as we’re taken on a surprisingly introspective ride through the character of Wolverine.
It’s not so surprising if you know the subject matter that the film is based on which is the classic Wolverine comic book mini-series, as that’s one of the most respected character stories ever told in comics. It’s still surprising for a Hollywood blockbuster that adheres almost religiously to all the rules of the game. The movie is paced and constructed by every trick there is, from a perfect three act set up to scene reversals from the beginning popping up at the end. Yet these tricks work here and deliver a character, not just a man with claws. It’s very much in line with Iron Man 3‘s take on Tony Stark where the hero gets stripped of what makes him special and thus the focus in on the man. A tactic that Man of Steel was sorely lacking.
It’s no hindrance that Hugh Jackman actually commits to this rule full tilt. He’s been Wolverine long enough that he’s begun to define who and what the character is, and he’s simply perfect for it. Just the right balance of hard exterior and softer inner soul — with adamantium claws of course. And yes, they’re real (for the most part) this time around. Not even Jackman could salvage X-Men Origins: Wolverine from the hideous special effects and complete lack of anything interesting happening. It seems the filmmakers learned their lesson from that film as The Wolverine is almost the exact opposite.
That goes for the action as well, which is fantastically original while still paying homage to many classic samurai and westerns. One especially creative fight takes the standard train rooftop fight scene, but shakes it up by putting it on a bullet train where the only way the fighters can hold on is by slamming their knives/claws into the top of the train. It is nods to the genres that inspired it like this that make The Wolverine a bit more than its cookie-cutter parts actually are. If you know your stuff you’ll be thinking of Kurosawa and other classic Japanese directors pretty often. This is what happens when you get a director like James Mangold to helm a big action flick. Any guy who can make something like Knight and Day work clearly has some skill and it’s clear in The Wolverine.
Still, this is a big Hollywood picture and its smarts don’t always overcome its roots. The film can often wallow in cliches and a few poorly written scenes. While Mangold keeps many of the scenes stunning he can’t keep them from feeling planned. The beat for beat hits of the screenplay are often too obvious making the overall feeling of the film lean more towards summer blockbuster than originality. In that case The Wolverine fails only because it feels like exactly what it is, which, in the end, isn’t the greatest fault in the world.
When The Wolverine is at its best is when it rises above its painstakingly crafted (not in the good way) screenplay. When Mangold and Jackman are able to take the film to a character level and not a superhero movie it can actually be stunning. When the action challenges what we’ve been seeing over and over in other blockbusters it can be truly awesome. When it’s just a summer blockbuster, well, then it’s just a summer blockbuster. Nothing wrong with the latter, but man does the former make you want more.