James Mangold has directed nine features, but my most privileged, even exalted, moment occurred with his debut, Heavy. It premiered eighteen years ago in the competition at Sundance. The movie’s central character, a painfully introverted older man (well played by Pruitt Taylor Vince), in love with a dazzlingly innocent, beautiful young woman (Liv Tyler), delivers on his one chance to make an impression, treating her to a magnificent point of view inside a car as planes blast off from close range.
The resulting sensation is tactile, beautiful, even, I think, transportive. I’m not sure he has ever again achieved such a dramatic epiphany, a precisely calibrated stitching together of incident, mood and tone that toggles between the subtle and the majestic. He has certainly staked out a career. (“He still has to answer for Identity,” a friend and colleague said after watching his newest film, and largely liking it.)
Like a lot of contemporary directors trying to find their way in a hostile, impersonal system, Mangold reveals his most striking talent for appropriation, ruminating on a cultural past, poaching ideas and themes already present. As a result, he creates perfectly fine, representative even works, but never truly exciting or liberating or fully justifying, like his remake of Delmer Daves’ greatest film, 3:10 to Yuma, of why it needed to exist.
Until it goes soft and paint by numbers brain-dead in the last reel, I was pretty much taken with his new film, The Wolverine. Fortunately the movie is more inventive than the title, this sixth iteration of Hugh Jackman’s tortured, self-annihilating X-Man “mutant,” adapted primarily by Christopher McQuarrie and Scott Frank from a four-part Marvel series conceived by Chris Claremont and designed by Frank Miller.
All the films have trafficked in self-persecution, of people whose freakish, inexplicable talent, genius even, marked them for all manner of social outcasts and political refugees. Logan, the mutant’s doppelganger, is a classic nowhere man, benumbed and solitary. (Are you a hunter, he’s asked at the start. “Not any more,” is the terse response. Logan is immobilized, emotionally, physically, by a past he struggles to justify, expiating his own sins of commission, as his need for violence marks its own peculiar order and civilization.
Interestingly, the story of the new film, mostly set in Japan, intersects with that of Takashi Miike’s Cannes-competition title Shield of Straw. The new film opens with the atomic annihilation of Nagasaki, that Logan, as an Allied POW, bears witness, and also protector who saves the life of a Japanese officer, Shingen Yashida (played by Hiroyuki Sanada). Summoned to contemporary Japan through a striking emissary (Rila Fukushima), Logan is reunited with the now aging warrior, a powerful industrialist and technology magnate who is deeply covetous of Logan's immortality and desperate to tap into it for his own purposes.
Logan is drawn into the internecine corporate and family succession, and the protection of the man’s granddaughter, Mariko (the striking Tao Okamoto). Mangold is very cine-literate, and he's already, on record, as saying one of the influences of the film is Yasijuro Ozu's own color remake of Floating Weeds. He goes to great lengths to paint the cultural and social particulars of Japanese culture, especially the importance of family and tradition.
As such, the movie is steeped in ritual and observance, and the first of the movie's great action set pieces has Logan shielding Mariko from a horde of Yakuza gangsters at a public ceremony of mourning. The press screening I saw the movie was in 3-D; that’s not usually my preferred method of seeing something, but Mangold and his cinematographer, Ross Emery, create some highly visceral and very effective images that are varied, precise and stylized and almost always spatially coherent, so that as it moves through horizontal and vertical planes, the action is accessible and thrilling.
After a momentary interruption of near constant action, the movie's best scene uncannily recalls a movement from Shield of Straw, a flurry of movement, in very tight spaces, aboard a bullet train. In the first big set piece, Mangold is very good at differentiating between open and closed spaces, alternating the two with purpose and some élan. Shield of Straw aspired toward the credibly realistic; rules of science and fiction need not apply in the Wolverine universe.
The action moves abruptly from the contained space of the train's interior to the space beyond as Logan and a skilled and very resourceful Yakuza warrior, using a knife as a corollary to the Wolverine's retracted steel claws, meditate their own version of chase and pursuit. The verve and bracing action of those two moments created a level of expectation the rest of the film never again matches.
Like most of the these movies, the film has no idea how to treat sexuality or its implications, and neither of the two striking Japanese women are able to liberate Logan from the tragedy of his surrendered object of desire. Even more dismaying, the movie's villain, her very name (Viper) giving away the secrets, is a castrating figure of vengeance. (Mangold compounds the error by casting a towering Russian actress, Svetlana Khodchenkova who's far more graceful and lovely to watch than trying to disentangle what she's saying.)
The Wolverine meditates on the meaning and purpose of what it means to be a samurai without ever truly examining the moral or emotional costs of being an emissary of death. Rather than build on landscape, faces or shapes to assess that particular legacy, The Wolverine tracks an opposite path, moving deeper and deeper into inflated comic book exaggeration that dulls the nerves and senses.
It’s unfortunate, though wholly emblematic of the times. The Wolverine is just good enough to italicize its limitations.
Image courtesy of Fox