Chuck Koplinski: Character-driven 'Wolverine' a model of restraint

Chuck Koplinski: Character-driven 'Wolverine' a model of restraint

After the misfire that was "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," it could be argued that the last thing we need is yet another film featuring the most famous of the Marvel mutants.

However, Hugh Jackman, who came to fame playing the Adamantium-laden hero, knew there was more life left in the character and was the driving force behind the latest entry in the "X-Men" film series, "The Wolverine." If the actor's intent is to make audiences forget that previous entry, he succeeds handsomely as this movie is everything the 2009 feature wasn't. Engaging, character-driven and sporting a weighty tone that serves it well, the movie puts the character back at the forefront of Marvel's mutant universe and serves as a strong stepping stone for next year's "X-Men: Days of Future Past."

The film hits the ground running as we find Logan (Jackman) hiding in the Alaskan wilderness, haunted by memories of his lost love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). He's content to let the world pass him by but is pulled out of exile by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a psychic martial arts expert who delivers a message from her employer Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), a powerful Asian industrialist. Seems Logan saved his life some 70 years ago, and now that he's dying, the billionaire wishes to pay his respects to his savior.

Our hero reluctantly travels to Tokyo to grant this wish and unwittingly steps into a familial quagmire in which Yashida's offspring and rivals are vying to take over his corporation, while his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) has become the target of the Yakuza and competitors, as well as it is assumed she will be left his fortune.

Based on a comic book mini-series, the script by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank reveals the characters' motives in a deliberate manner that keeps us engaged throughout. One of the film's most welcome surprises is that while it contains its share of action sequences, none of them is overblown nor do they dominate the movie. They're used in service of the story, as this genre exercise is a character-driven film that focuses on the emotional toll exacted on Wolverine, not how many enemies he can slice and dice. This lends a gravity to the film that sets it apart from the empty blockbusters that have littered the cinematic landscape this summer.

Hard to believe that Jackman was the second choice for the role of Wolverine all those years ago when the first film in the series was made. He so fully embodies the role that it's hard to imagine anyone bringing the character to life as well as he does. In being able to do his own stunts, the actor lends a credibility to the role that's welcome, but it's his emotional investment that makes the hero his own. He's ably supported by Fukushima and Okamoto as well as Svetlana Khodchenkova as Viper, a particularly deadly mutant with a toxic skill set.

With a "surprise" ending that's as predictable as the sun rising in the east, "Wolverine" isn't quite as clever as it hopes to be, and like so many movies this year, it's about 20 minutes too long.

Yet it must be commended for bringing the character back to its roots and serving as a template for future superhero movies as it reminds us that the focus should be on what makes is heroes tick, not the special effects that bring their powers to life.

'The Wolverine' (3 stars out of 4)

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukushima, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Will Yun Lee, Famke Janssen, Tao Okamoto, Hiroyuki Sanada, Brian Tee and Hal Yamanouchi.

Directed by James Mangold; produced by Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler Donner and Jackman; screenplay by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank.

A 20th Century-Fox release. 126 minutes. Rated PG-13 (sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language). At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

Mixed intentions mute "Fruitvale Station." (2-1/2 stars)

Fueled by a sense of anger and with the resolve to activate, Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" is an accomplished debut future that, despite its good intentions, left this viewer with an uneasy feeling.

Depicting the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young African-American who was senselessly killed by a transit officer in Oakland on New Year's Day 2009, the film does a fine job of slowly building toward the tragedy as we get to know the victim through a series of everyday moments that cast him as an eager son, untrustworthy boyfriend, devoted father and struggling young man. This strategy is a good one as Coogler sets out to give us a multifaceted character who, despite his flaws, is good at heart.

While this may have been the director's conscious intention, he skews our view of Grant toward the positive in a manipulative manner that left me feeling that I was meeting the filmmaker's ideal version of his subject rather than an accurate one.

As Grant, Michael B. Jordan ("Chronicle," TV's "Friday Night Lights") is captivating from the start, as he fully inhabits this troubled young man who is held back by his own shortcomings. His girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) harangues him about being unfaithful and not being financially able to help raise their daughter, while his mother Wanda (Octavia Spencer) struggles to be optimistic about her son's future what with his troubled past, which included a short stint in jail. Having recently been fired from his job, Grant is struggling to right his own ship, eager to turn over a new leaf but unsure how.

Over the course of the day and night the film covers, we see Grant at turns being helpful and self-serving. When his efforts to pick up a young woman are rebuffed, he attempts to save face by offering her advice regarding a meal she wants to prepare for her boyfriend; he lies to his mother and Sophina on numerous occasions; he dumps a huge stash of marijuana before he can sell it as a first step toward going straight; he goes out of his way to blame others for his troubles.

The effort to provide a warts-and-all vision of Grant is an admirable one, but with the inclusion of an incident that never happened (we see the young man comfort a dog that has been hit by a car) and the implication that his intentions to redeem himself are sincere, after seeing evidence to the contrary, this approach ultimately does the film and the man a disservice.

Without question, the movie's third act is a gripping one, and Coogler does a great job ratcheting up the tension as the inevitable tragedy approaches. The confusion that occurs on the Bay Area Rapid Transit platform of the title is palpable and rendered with such a powerful degree of realism that we get the sense that we're eavesdropping on events we want desperately to stop but can't.

Coogler's portrayal of the police officers involved in the incident is an evenhanded one, as he presents them as confused, overwhelmed and impulsive; the shooting occurs far too quickly as the officer charged and convicted of the crime (he spent 11 months in jail) claimed that he intended to grab his Taser to subdue Grant, but pulled his gun instead. Coogler's omission of the detail that one of the victim's friends heard the cop say, "I'm going to tase him," is conspicuous in its absence.

And yet, while "Fruitvale Station" may fudge a bit where facts are concerned, it's still a timely film that admirably keeps vital societal issues that must be addressed in the spotlight.

"Way Way Back" familiar but fun. (3 stars)

I have a feeling that if you were to press Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the writers and directors of "The Way Way Back," they would freely admit that there's nothing remotely original in their film.

Yet another coming-of-age movie that hits all the familiar tropes, it focuses on an alienated teen who ultimately finds his way with the help of a benevolent mentor and a young woman who convinces him he's not as big of a dweeb as he thinks he is. Yep, nothing new there, and yet by the end of the movie, you're thankful for having spent time with its familiar characters, thanks to a dynamic performance from a veteran actor and a sense of poignancy, which never feels forced, created by the filmmakers.

Duncan (Liam James) is the awkward young man in question, who finds himself feeling lost and alone at the beginning of what he's sure will be a hellish summer. He has been forced to accompany his mother Pam (Toni Collette) to a vacation cottage with her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell). Bad enough that he has been feeling neglected by his mom, who has been devoting all of her energy to this new relationship, but her beau happens to be a bully who goes out of his way to humiliate the young man at every turn.

Left alone to fill his days, Duncan wanders down to the local waterpark where he stumbles into a job and makes the acquaintance of the owner of the establishment, Owen (Sam Rockwell). This is a fortuitous turn for him, as is the friendship he strikes up with Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a young beauty next door who has more in common with Duncan than he first realizes.

That the film bears more than a passing resemblance to the far-better "Adventureland" is no accident as the waterpark is filled with its share of humorous oddballs who all contribute to shaping Duncan's new outlook on life as well as bolstering his ego. Lewis (Rash), who has grand plans but knows he will never leave his dead-end job, is the personification of fear and low self-esteem, while Roddy (Faxon) exemplifies a laid-back approach to life, finding fun in any situation that comes his way.

But it's Owen who has the biggest impact on Duncan, as he's able to show him that he does have worth and shouldn't let anyone tell him otherwise. Rockwell steals the show in this role, providing a constant stream of sarcasm, hyperbole and ironic humor that, in lesser hands, would have been irritating and off-putting. However, the actor's charm holds him in good stead as Owen comes off not as a self-absorbed blowhard, but a man who uses humor as a way to ingratiate himself to others and win their trust, not belittle them. It's a neat little performance, and it helps elevate the film.

Credit should be given to Carell for playing against his image, which he does convincingly, as well as Robb, whose great potential is coming to fruition, while Collette and Janney deliver their usual solid performances.

In the end, while "The Way Way Back" is all too familiar, it's the characters you remember and Faxon and Rash should be given credit for casting their film with such capable performers as they save the movie from being a just a rote exercise.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski or on his blog here. He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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