The massive success of last year’s Deadpool opens the door for studios to green light more R-rated superhero projects. Or, at least it does for Fox, which agreed to fund an R-rated Wolverine movie for the first time, after the character has lived the entirety of his onscreen life in a bloodless, PG-13 world. The rating itself isn’t a guarantee of success, as Deadpool’s triumph wasn’t simply due to the filth aspect, but the lack of restrictions can lead an individual filmmaker to be more creative with the genre, something the X-Men franchise could benefit from. James Mangold takes full advantage of his opportunity with the final Wolverine film, which feels nothing like any other X-Men movie, and has more in common with a gritty, violent Western from the 1970’s.
For starters, there is no reference to any event or character from any of the other films, a fact that makes it a true standalone, so don’t worry about continuity issues. The year is 2029, and Logan, aka Wolverine, is a beat up, broken down mess. It’s not exactly an apocalyptic universe, but mutants have stopped being born at all, leading to what we must presume is their ultimate extinction. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart in his best ever performance as Professor X) is a 90-year-old man suffering from a dementia-like illness and hiding out in a Mexican warehouse where Logan must keep him alive with illegally procured meds that prevent seizures (in his case, events that paralyze everyone in the vicinity surrounding him and make him a danger to himself and others). Logan is tired, tired of life and of the constant killing that is and has always been the result of his adamantium claws that for the first time are shown to rip people limb from limb whenever he gets in a fight. His healing powers are no longer as strong as they once were either.
It’s a desolate, depressing existence, made ever more brutal by the shocking, graphic bursts of bloody violence that accompany action scenes, the likes of which have not been seen before in the X-Men films. Eventually, we find out that a secret government program has been creating its own mutants using the stolen DNA codes of the existing (and likely dead) ones, which has led to a select group of genetically engineered adolescents, possessing the powers of their unknown parents. One of that group is Laura, played by 11-year-old Dafne Keen, who winds up in Logan and Charles’s care, and the three set out on a violent road trip intended to escape to freedom as they are being pursued by the feds.
What sets this movie apart is the tone and pace of it, a complete departure from its predecessors. I’ve mentioned the bursts of violence, which are very brutal and may wear you out eventually, but there is real care taken in the development of Logan, Charles and Laura, who are exhausted, world weary survivors of the shattered mutant race that sees no real hope for evolution. For X-Man fans, this is probably pretty sad, as Professor X’s idealistic dream of peaceful mutant and human co-existence is revealed to be the ultimate façade. For non-comics fans, it’s a lengthy, deliberately paced, melancholic road movie, one where Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart play out a pseudo father-son relationship that’s doomed like everything else in this universe, but lent some added weight thanks to the 17-year history the two have of playing these characters.
In some ways this film is an oddity, and one wonders if many fans will actually enjoy the hardened experience of it. Sentiment is enhanced by the character’s histories and the terrific performances from the leads (this is also the best Jackman has ever been), due to a screenplay that asks for more from them than any other entry in the franchise ever has. But Keen is also a standout, a tough, commanding presence that is in no way coached to be anything resembling a cute movie kid. The bond between her and Jackman takes its time, as do many scenes in the film itself, which misses the frantic pace of a typical action movie. The boldness of Logan in striking out its own path and its own integrity is to be admired on the part of writer-director Mangold, and it’s a fitting end to Jackman’s iconic two decade run as the character unlikely to be recast anytime soon.
* * * 1/2