By the time the second X-Men movie spinoff, 2013’s The Wolverine, rolled around, it was Hugh Jackman’s sixth time playing the role that made him a star, an ostensibly ageless character he first portrayed at 31. Now, at 48, Jackman’s becoming a bit old for the physical demands of playing Logan, aka Wolverine, a slightly feral mutant with razor-sharp retractable claws and the handy ability to quickly heal from nearly any life-threatening injury. But as the title of Logan implies, the erstwhile member of the X-Men has retired from his life of heroics, and in this film’s pre-apocalyptic setting of 2029, he drunkenly passes his days in Texas by driving a limousine near the Mexican border, shuttling bachelorette parties as he saves up money to buy a boat and further retreat from the world.
There have been no reports of new mutant births for at least 25 years, and Logan hardly ever uses his claws anymore, save when he has to—such as in the movie’s opening scene, which sets the tone for everything that follows. As he lies passed out in the back seat of his limo, a small group of men start stripping the vehicle for parts. The activity is enough to wake him, though, and soon, this slovenly gringo, his trademark muttonchops now grown into a full, grizzled beard, weakly leaps into action, taking a shotgun blast before dusting off his tieless black suit and slicing off the arm of one man, then the leg of another, while straight-up killing at least one of them. The carnage is far more graphic than anything in Wolverine’s previous onscreen adventures, and as Logan’s claws rip through faces and puncture skulls, the blood that spills (and spews!) is downright shocking in comparison to the PG-13 violence we’ve seen until now. Just as shocking is the language that we hear as Logan barks “Motherfucker!” at one of his targets and they respond with equally colorful retorts.
Like all of the superlative action sequences to come, the entire scene has a tremendous rhythm to it, and Logan’s dance of death in one respect calls to mind the opening sequence of La La Land. Mangold’s latest may be vastly different than Damien Chazelle’s musical, but both pictures announce their intentions in their opening moments, deftly setting the stage for what will follow. If you don’t like what you see at the start, abandon hope, all ye who enter here!
As Logan drives away from the bloody scene in his now bullet-riddled limo, he retracts his claws. Only the healing doesn’t begin, and pus oozes out from the exit wounds between his knuckles. Logan is ill from an unknown sickness that’s eating him from within, mottling his skin and leaving bags beneath his deadened eyes. And he’s not the only one.
Logan is squatting in a dry water tower that he’s using to shelter old friend and mentor Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who’s now in his 90s and suffering from dementia, a condition that has turned the wheelchair-bound man’s brain into a weapon of mass destruction. If Logan and fellow squatter Caliban (Stephen Merchant)—an albino-skinned mutant with pre-cognitive abilities—can’t continue to obtain the drugs controlling Charles’ seizures, then another fatal accident may occur, similar to one that is alluded to have taken place in Westchester County, New York, home of the rest of the X-Men. Read into this what you will.
So when Logan is confronted by a Mexican nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who promises a big payday if Logan will transport a mysteriously quiet preteen girl named Laura (talented, steely-eyed newcomer Dafne Keen) to a North Dakota location, he tells her she can “fuck herself.” If I haven’t stressed this enough, this isn’t a comic book movie for your kids.
No, it’s more akin to the Westerns you may have grown up watching on television, just as director James Mangold probably did. Clearly, he’s a fan of the genre, a fact reflected in the 10 movies he’s made, from the actual Western that was his 2007 remake of 1957’s 3:10 to Yuma to his Westerns dressed in other clothes, including 1997’s police officer Western, Cop Land, and the samurai Western of The Wolverine.
As if it weren’t becoming clear that Mangold has crafted a tale with deep echoes of 1953’s Shane, a stopover at a family homestead of farmers makes this nearly as explicit as the moment when Charles and Laura—now on the run with Logan from some deadly men led by a mercenary with a robotic hand (Boyd Holbrook of Netflix’s Narcos)—watch the climactic scene from George Stevens’ Western classic on TV as they briefly recuperate in a motel room. Subtle, it’s not.
So it’s not perfect. But it’s close. After last year’s X-Men: Apocalypse, with its cartoonish devastation and even more cartoonish characters, I was ready to write this series off. But as I left the theater with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, I reflected that this isn’t just the best X-Men film since 2003’s X2, but the most adult superhero film to hit screens since 2008’s The Dark Knight, one that’s mature in its themes as well as its content. And that final shot? Bravo.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Dafne Keen, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Boyd Holbrook, Richard E. Grant, Stephen Merchant, Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal, Quincy Fouse and Patrick Stewart. Directed by James Mangold.
Written by Mangold, Scott Frank and Michael Green, based on a story by Mangold. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.