No X-men but Logan's tale a welcome change
Hugh Jackman owes a great deal of his enduring popularity to the muscular swagger and trademark sideburns of Wolverine. The Australian actor first donned the Adamantium claws of the hirsute Marvel Comics superhero in the 2000 blockbuster X-Men, not long after an Olivier Award nomination for Best Actor in the National Theatre's staging of Oklahoma!.
His portrayal of singing cowboy Curly on stage was far removed from the brooding masculinity of Wolverine, but Jackman impressed fans with his physical prowess and deadpan delivery of the script's one-liners. He has since bulked up as the mutant warrior on four more occasions, including the disappointing stand-alone feature X-Men Origins: Wolverine and an uncredited cameo in the 2011 prequel, X-Men: First Class.
For this latest instalment, which has tellingly lost any mention of X-Men from the title, director James Mangold draws inspiration from a 1982 comic book storyline set in Japan to strip back the testosterone-fuelled action in favour of soul-searching and romance. There are still spectacular set pieces including fisticuffs inside and on top of a speeding bullet train, but screenwriters Mark Bomback, Scott Frank and Christopher McQuarrie aren't noticeably in a rush to deliver the next adrenaline-pumping thrill.
The film opens with a flashback to 1945 Nagasaki, where Logan (Jackman) is held prisoner by the Japanese. As the bomb detonates, Logan protects one kind officer, Shingen Yashida, from the radiation blast - his mutant powers allowing him to recover almost instantly from the fireball.
Many years later, Logan is living alone in the woods, haunted by the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). A swordswoman called Yukio (Rila Fukushima) tracks him down and asks him to accompany her to Japan to meet with the old and frail Shingen. "He wants to say thank you for saving his life all those years ago," she smiles.
Reluctantly, Logan agrees and he is shocked to find Shingen (Horiyuki Sanada) on his deathbed, under the constant surveillance of a statuesque medic (Svetlana Khodchenkova). Soon after, Shingen dies and the Yazuka attempts to kidnap beloved granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who is poised to take over the family dynasty.
Logan rescues Mariko in the nick of time, and she develops deep feelings for her protector. "This isn't going to end well - everyone you love dies," whispers Jean from beyond the grave, in one of the waking dreams that haunt Logan.
The Wolverine is a welcome change of style and pace for the franchise, and Jackman - nominated for an Oscar earlier this year in Les Miserables - excels in the quieter moments.
Fukushima is a striking, doll-like partner in crime, flashing her blade in balletic and acrobatic fight sequences.
There are occasional flashes of humour, like when Logan and Mariko hide out from their pursuers in a love hotel and have to choose between the dungeon, nurse's office and Martian themed rooms. For the most part though, the storyline is downbeat, debating whether Logan should relinquish his immortality so he doesn't have to watch anyone else he cares about die.
Twists and turns in the plot conceal few surprises and the inclusion of a second mutant is completely unnecessary, presumably a concession to the comic book universe to which Wolverine must return in next summer's X-Men: Days Of Future Past. An additional screen during the end credits provides the obligatory teaser.