There are times when an actor owns a role, and there are times when a role owns an actor. In the case of Hugh Jackman and Wolverine, it’s both.
Mr. Jackman has been growling out the surly mutant superhero’s lines since 2000, when he landed the role for “X-Men,” the movie that launched the Marvel Comics universe onto the big screen. At this point, it can be difficult to separate the man from the character. Comic book writers and artists have made Wolverine subtly more Jackmanesque over the years. Likewise, when you see Mr. Jackman on screen these days, even in unrelated roles, it’s almost as if it’s really Wolverine playing the part, hiding his claws and pretending to be someone he’s not.
This magical transference of character and actor is what helps make “The Wolverine,” Mr. Jackman’s latest outing as the clawed, ageless mutant, work as well as it does. He embodies the title character so perfectly and so thoroughly that it almost doesn’t matter what he’s doing. Fortunately, director James Mangold and writers Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, and Christopher McQuarrie have cooked up a reasonably engaging adventure for him as well.
The movie starts in a flashback to World War II. Wolverine, who also goes by the name Logan, is in Japan as the Enola Gay drops a nuclear bomb. Logan manages to save a Japanese officer from the blast, who promises to repay him, eventually.
Flash forward to the present, and Wolverine is an outcast, living alone in the wilderness, one of the many ways the movie suggests that he is as much animal as man. His solitude doesn’t last for long. A young woman named Yukio (Rila Fukushima) shows up to whisk Logan off to Japan — where he meets Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), an elderly, dying version of the same Japanese officer he saved all those years before.
From there, Wolverine becomes embroiled in a complex conflict involving Yashida’s family, the massive research corporation he founded and, eventually, a slew of bow-wielding, black-clad ninjas. The details of the plot are messy and underdeveloped, and in the end it tries to do too much with too little, especially when it comes to the stunted arc of mutant-baddie Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), who is mostly memorable for her leaf-green pleather plants.
But the particulars are less important than the clever way the movie combines tones and genres — it’s part Samurai film, part Japanese crime movie, part sci-fi superhero epic.
To his credit, Mr. Mangold downplays the “epic.” It’s a smaller and more intimate story than we’ve seen in recent summer blockbusters, which have tended toward the gigantic: No cities were harmed, much less destroyed, in the making of this movie. Indeed, some of the movie’s best moments are its quietest — especially a series of dream-like conversations between Wolverine and his old flame Jean Grey (the exquisite, underused Famke Janssen).
The best special effect, meanwhile, may be Mr. Jackman himself. He’s been playing the role for 13 years now, but with his popped-up veins and rippling abs, he looks as ferociously buff as ever. He’ll be 45 later this year, and yet he still looks good enough to make you wonder if he’s the one with the superhuman ability to resist the tide of age. Maybe he really is a mutant after all.
RATING: PG-13 for superhero violence
RUNNING TIME: 126 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS