Director: James Mangold
Writer: Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green; story by James Mangold
Cinematographer: John Mathieson
Producer: Hutch Parker, Simon Kinberg, and Lauren Shuler Donner
by Jon Cvack
With the exception of The Dark Knight trilogy and perhaps a handful of films such as the first Spider Man ('02) and Watchmen ('09) I do not enjoy comic book movies (though I also learned Road to Perdition ('02) and A History of Violence ('05) were based on comics, serving as further exceptions to this rule while being one of the most fascinating pieces of film trivia I’ve learned in a very long time). Most epitomize all that’s wrong with cinema, offering no voice and instead bombard the viewer with over the top VFX that are so disconnected from reality that instead of imagining a crew and some actors in exotic locations, I see a green screen and thousands of artists in dark computer labs. The absence of voice is the primary problem, in which for the handful I've seen, there’s little beyond a homogenous tone that makes all of the films play with the exact structure - an existential threat to humanity must be fought by a group of superpower heroes.
As we continue to learn that these films are increasingly more profitable in foreign markets than the states, it’s clear as to why the films are so bland - in order to appease the most viewers possible the films demand an acultural and apolitical stance that won’t offend the broad range of governments and audiences. The Avengers: Age of Ultron ('15) was my last attempt at the genre and in what is an accomplishment reserved for few movies, I couldn’t even finish the thing, getting absolutely nothing out of it, only left wishing that the creative teams would take lesson from Christopher Nolan and allow filmmakers with a voice to make these stories their own.
By the time Logan arrived in theaters, regardless of the critical praise it was receiving, I didn't trust it. Although I resent the aggregate review style, it applies well to popcorn movies and Rotten Tomatoes had Certified Fresh for countless numbers of the Marvel and DC series that were frequently disappointments. It was as though James Mangold studied everything that these films did wrong and all that the good ones did right and combined them into what should be the precedent for at least most mainstream comic book movies. As Christopher Nolan offered a highly realistic portrayal in The Dark Knight Trilogy, Mangold explored equally realistic territory within an R-rated, brutally violent and action packed narrative.
The film opens up twenty five years into the future in El Paso, Texas, with Wolverine, aka James Logan Hewitt (Hugh Jackman), who’s now a limo driver and drinking heavily. I should pause and disclaim that I’ve never seen any of the films from the X-Men series and have not seen The Wolverine, though while I’m sure I’m missing some details, is a testament to Mangold’s power in that I slowly pieced it all together.
Logan has lost his self-healing ability and his strength and agility is starting to decline. We meet him on the side of the road where he’s accosted by some gangsters, things escalate, Logan loses his temper, out come the claws, and we then watch as he stabs and slices the men to death in such a way that you immediately realize this is a different type of movie. Still, for the next ten or so minutes, I remained suspicious, as even the opening fight sequence felt a little too superhero-like (the hero outnumbered by inferior enemies). We learn that him and albino mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are taking care of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who’s also starting to lose his mutant abilities, unable to control his powerful telekinetic abilities, having to take pills that cloud his brilliant mind. Although the superpowers are initially distracting, it’s their position in reality, as though they could actually have happened (much like The Dark Knight trilogy), that the story becomes easier to consume. Like any great film it grounds the unbelievable into plausibility, allowing the well matched story to shine.
Logan is approached by a former nurse Gabriel Lopez (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who’s also taking care of a mutant, in this case an 11 year old child Laura Kinney (Dafne Keen), who possesses the same superhuman strength, claws, and self-healing ability as Logan, demanding he take her to a refuge in North Dakota called Eden where she should be safe. The bitter Logan refuses, later finding Gabriela dead, taking Laura back to his hideout where they’re approached by Donald Pierce (allegedly a cyborg; played by Boyd Holbrook who I bet becomes cinema's next Great Bad Guy). Pierce wants the girl, eventually returning with his team of mercenaries (called The Reavers; again I didn’t know any of this prior but I will say, without having dug too deep, these seem like pretty cool characters who were well adapted compared to their extravagant roots). Thus begins the scene where I understood the praise, as we’re provided with an incredible and at least very real looking car chase/shoot out/escape sequence as Logan loads Professor Xavier and Laura into his limousine while the Reivers chase him down on motorcycles.
I’ve discussed my problem with the over reliance on VFX to create moments that are so clearly unreal and created on a computer that it removes the ability to believe, or even better, to appreciate the fact that a bunch of actors and crew had to physically execute the scene. I’m not sure how much CGI Mangold used (he digitally aged Logan which is actually very cool), but for the most part I believed everything I was watching could actually happen. It offered a refreshingly modest approach - it didn’t have cameras flying through the air, following robots shooting lasers that can destroy mountains, but rather enhanced the footage.
The story continues and so begins an extraordinary exploration of character. Hugh Jackman puts on an Award-winning performance, pulling us from the large and egotistical personalities of superheroes and toward an aging man with deep personal struggles, both internally and where he fits in the world as an ailing mutant with a terrible job. Then there’s Professor Xavier and his performance as the father figure, attempting to guide Logan and protect the child at any cost, who’s ailing body is decades worse than Logan.
While I’m sure I would appreciate learning more of their history by watching the other films, I still got the sense of profound bond and love between the two, who have only each other in a world that’s rejected mutants. Then there’s Laura, evidently Logan’s daughter (again I’m clearly missing some history), who isn’t just a product of a past affair, but of a sophisticated laboratory called Alkali-Transigen which was determined to harness infant mutants into becoming sophisticated killing machines before learning alternative methods and attempting to destroy the children, with only Laura and a few others escaping, seeking refuge in a place called Eden. The dynamic is classic and yet it’s between Dafne Keen and Jackman’s performance placed within a more extraordinary setting that made it feel fresh. We get the impression that Jackman truly wants no part of the child, with his vulnerability slowly corroding his guard.
The trio eventually ends up in Casino-Hotel in Oklahoma City where Donald Pierce and the Reivers eventually track them down. With Logan out, he returns and immediately experiences the wrath of Xavier’s power. It was this sequence specifically, which while dominated by super powers and special effects, was done so within a responsible and contained manner, in which the images on screen were distorted and shaking, with everyone frozen in their place, only able to move their eyes (experienced earlier when first meeting Xavier in his silo hideout) that made us wonder whether the event was an accident or deliberate, soon discovering that the Reivers had made it to Logan’s room, hoping to kill Xavier and Laura, freezing the mercenaries and allowing Logan to use every ounce of his strength to slaughter them one by one and in absolutely brutal fashion, such as stabbing them through the back of the head, with his claws coming out the front before going on to inject Xavier’s medicine and saving them.
They continue on, nearly getting into a traffic accident, dodging a bunch of self-driving semis that take you a few seconds to grasp their structure and why they’re missing a cab. With a fellow family - The Musons, including a couple and their child - nearly driven off the road, Logan, Xavier, and Laura help them, then invited back to have a home cooked meal and a long overdue night of rest and relaxation that Xavier declares has been his best night in a long time. Mangold’s skills shine as he’s able to swing to the other side of the spectrum, offering an intimate and humorous conversation between the characters until the water goes out and the man takes Logan back onto the farm to turn it on, running into the local muscle man who controls the flow. While we admire Logan’s commitment to using his power to help the downtrodden, we also know that the victory is ephemeral, setting up yet another brilliant action sequence when the muscle man and his cronies return looking for the husband while Pierce arrives with his minions, slaughtering the family, even the child, along with Xavier, and unleashing a rage in Logan that’s best matched for a superior Logan clone, X-24, who’s younger, and far more powerful and agile, and while I often resent the Final Gatekeeper character, his match to Logan was exciting to watch and threatening enough for me to wonder how he’ll be defeated, which is so often missing from the other encounters.
Eventually Logan makes it to Eden with Laura, greeting the dozen or so kids who have been hiding out in their homemade fortress, waiting for Laura. Of course Pierce and the Reivers along with X-24 and so begins the one of the greatest climatic scenes I’ve seen in recent action films, involving the children and their powers, and Logan’s acceptance of his love for Laura and determination to save her. Once again, it’s logical, engaging, and thrilling, culminating in a conclusion that, for all I’ve seen from the genre, left me surprised.
It’s a beautiful film, where throughout I was expecting it to veer in the direction of its peers, and yet always managed to put plausibility and character before set piece. In an age where most action sequences seem to function as teasers for the video games, it was relieving to watch a film that took something that could have so easily fallen into the same tropes. Perhaps best is the inclusion of the X-Men comic books which exist within the universe, functioning as superficial cartoons that hoped to exploit the mutant struggles, if not serving as a criticism for what the films have all become. It’s one of the best films of 2017 and I’ll forever be disappointed that I missed it in theaters.
BELOW: VFX done right
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