After the apocalyptic events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Logan (Hugh Jackman) has forsaken his role as Wolverine for a peaceful life in the wilderness, albeit haunted by the past and the ghost of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). The beast within stirs again when the senseless killing of a mountain bear spurs him to fight a bar-load of violent rednecks. Yet before Logan can take revenge he is spirited to Japan by sword-wielding precognitive mutant minx Yukio (Rila Fukushima). She works for Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi, a familiar face to fans of trashy Italian post-apocalyptic action films!), an ailing business tycoon whose life Logan once saved from the atom bomb at Nagasaki. Yashida offers Logan the chance to lead a mortal life in return for transfusing his mutant healing factor. Wary, Logan refuses but a close encounter with Yashida's sultry physician Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) leaves him without his fast-healing power and on the run from ninja assassins along with Yashida's beautiful granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), trying to figure out what is going on.
This second solo outing for Hugh Jackman, following Gavin Hood's lacklustre X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), reunites the ever-affable Aussie with director James Mangold more than a decade after their time-travel rom-com Kate and Leopold (2001). Mangold is an eclectic if uneven filmmaker. Apart from his excellent Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (2005) and flawed but exhilarating western remake 3:10 to Yuma (2007) his films tend to be characterized by promising ideas squandered by sloppy scriptwriting. Here however Mangold makes the most of the solid input from Mark Bomback and the reliable Scott Frank adapting a fairly well known storyline from the original comics devised by X-Men guru Chris Claremont and superstar artist, filmmaker and Japan-o-phile Frank Miller. Mangold's strength with handling actors is well evident from the visceral intensity of the performances with Jackman on fine form matched by an outstanding Japanese cast, though it remains slightly galling to see Hiroyuki Sanada, Japan's biggest movie star, reduced to a clichéd Oriental supporting villain.
Mangold also injects an appealing anime vibe with ninjas, a robot samurai and Rila Fukushima as a sexy pink-haired sword-wielding sidekick. Indeed Fukushima steals so many scenes and shares such great chemistry with Jackman the film tends to lag whenever Yukio is off-screen. One-note love interest Mariko pales as a character by comparison although beautiful Tao Okamoto shoulders a pleasing character arc. The need to cram as many characters from the comic results in a slightly cluttered plot. Away from the action the pace meanders but the set-pieces prove more exciting and inventive than ever including a fight atop a speeding bullet train and a great sequence where Yukio fights to protect a comatose Logan. Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova also proves herself a potential international star in the making with a slinky turn as a venom-spewing succubus.
As was the case with the other X-Men films Jackman's wry charisma and self-effacing humour make a character who is pretty insufferable in the comics far warmer, more complex and likeable. The film establishes Logan as haggard and haunted by past pain and thereafter renders him more compellingly vulnerable with the loss of his famous healing factor. It is fundamentally a story about replenishing his batteries, restoring his fighting spirit in the run up to future adventures. Though the plot comes across like a minor diversion between X-Men epics and carries what one presumes is an unintentional message about kindness being weakness, the climax is well-staged and exciting and the whole film benefits from a pleasing streak of dry humour.