Sunday, March 12, 2017

Brief thoughts on Logan.

For 17 years, Hugh Jackman has been the one constant in the X-Men film series. Having defined and carved out the character from his first onscreen appearance, and having played a part in every film in the series (minus Deadpool), it became clear through Jackman's commitment to even the most mediocre of material that he was doing more than just playing Wolverine, but that he was the Wolverine. But with Jackman himself aging and growing out of the role of a rapidly healing man, the studio intends to finish off his last appearance in the series in big, bloody, brutal fashion with Logan.

Wolverine solo movies don't have a dependable track record, starting in 2009 with the awful corporate hackjob Origins that nearly killed the franchise, and seeing an improvement when Jackman and director James Mangold (also the director of Logan) moved the character to Japan, but was unfortunately let down by studio concessions, including a terribly ill-advised third act. One thing not helping were the neutered and toothless PG-13 ratings, meaning that the animalistic Wolverine couldn't even be seen going on his bloody berserker rages. But thanks to the success of Deadpool, coupled with Jackman's intentions to hang up the claws for good, the studio has finally relinquished control to let him and the fans get exactly what they want.

And this brutality is seen almost as quickly as the film begins, and not merely through the violent acts that Logan commits. Logan has always felt like a lone-gunslinger within the X-Men lore, a hard-drinking and shady piece of work with a violent past, but never have we seen the character in quite the state that he is here, having grown from gruff and hard-edged grump, to an utterly bitter, broken and detached isolationist, with his own powers and Adamantium skeleton actively working against him, and rendering him in chronic pain. Jackman has often carried shades of Western icons like Shane (referenced a bit too far on the nose when the characters watch the film), and his turn here owes particular influence to Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven. Jackman has frankly never been better than he is here, bringing that persona, grueling physicality, and the emotional input that he brought to the character full circle.

Largely the film does well at straying away from those concessions to the superhero genre, playing out as more of a modern Western within the X-Men universe (think Hell or High Water on steroids). You can feel Mangold's touch all throughout the film, taking the influence of prior Western 3:10 to Yuma in addition to his classic playlist. Even any action within the film is much more subdued or played in favor of slow-burning tension and suspense, as the atmosphere and environment of the film is always tinged with a harsh and fatal feeling of deadliness, swallowing up innocent people who just happen to be in the way. That same brutality is just as well felt in Wolverine's bloody attacks, and now freed from the shackles of a PG-13, the film is allowed to veer closer to Logan's primal instincts and roots, managing at once to make the impalement and hacking of body parts both disturbing, while also delivering on the intense thrills fans have waited to see.

But Logan himself is not all that makes the film so good, as much merit also lies in his interaction and easy chemistry with the other cast and characters, with the bond between him, Patrick Stewart and Dafne Keen possessing powerful emotional response, and supplying great character depth to the proceedings. Joining Logan on his cross-country journey is returning X-Men mainstay Patrick Stewart, in a very different turn from the Charles Xavier we know and love, his own powers having been stricken by crippling Alzheimer's and seizures. It's a heartbreaking side to witness as Charles' once brilliant mind is now actively working against him, but Stewart also brings an awkward and good sense of levity bridging the gap between saddening and funny. Logan's other prominent companion is Laura, played by newcomer Dafne Keen, an experimental mutant sharing similarities to Wolverine. Keen is absolutely terrific in the part, translating numerous levels of subtext and emotional connection despite having very limited dialogue, and while ensuring that Laura always feels like a curious, precocious, and awkward child at heart, also casts a heavily intimidating shadow all throughout, making for a very unpredictable force, and making it sometimes humorous to see adult characters backing away in terror of what she could do.

Alas, if anything comes along that does damage Logan, it's the aforementioned concessions, which are made all the more apparent by the fact that the filmmakers are clearly disinterested in them. This is made particularly egregious by the villains, although to be fair, it doesn't start out that way. Boyd Holbrook plays this ex-military commander leading his group on the search of Laura and Logan, and he surprisingly crafts a striking image and presence, complete with heavy sunglasses and bionic arm. He could have easily made for a capable foil in the same league of Lee Van Cleef, but he eventually gets pushed to the side in favor of Richard E. Grant's government scientist, heading a mutant creation program that feels completely detached from the rest of the film, and completely shatters the momentum anytime it's brought up. I also find myself somewhat disappointed at the under-use of Stephen Merchant as Kaliban, an albino and highly photosensitive mutant who helps Logan care for Xavier. It's a nice little role with heart, but Merchant never gets a good opportunity to stretch his legs, and as someone not well-versed in the comics, I found it quite odd how the film leaves his actual powers incredibly vague (He seems to be a tracker... I think?).

Regardless of that, however, Logan still succeeds at the goals it sets out to make, diverging the long-running X-Men series into a brutal and captivating new side, and if for no other reason, it's worth the price of admission for Jackman's performance, and for bringing its beloved and iconic title character the satisfying send-off he deserves. Get some rest, Logan. You've earned it...

**** / *****

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