Logan (2017, Dir. James Mangold):
Seventeen years and nine films — that’s how long Hugh Jackman has owned the role of Logan (aka The Wolverine), gruffest and most feral of the X-Men. That’s longer than Connery as Bond, Rathbone as Holmes, Reeve as Superman, and a host of other actors who’ve come to be identified with the character they’ve played. (Not a bad accomplishment for an actor who was a last-minute replacement for Dougray Scott.) Back when he assumed the role, life at the movies was a lot more innocent — superhero franchises had yet to evolve into the all-encompassing assembly lines they are today, and the idea of doing a big-screen adaptation of a Marvel comic crammed with mutants and social commentary seemed downright foolhardy. The X-Men universe in general has seen diminishing returns over the past two decades, so it’s easy to forget how simple and bracing the original X-Men (2000) is, largely due to Jackman’s performance. Sure he scoffs at the team of mutant do-gooders he allies himself with, but his clenched reply when he’s asked if it hurts for him to bare his adamantium claws — “Every time” — establishes him as the soul of the movie. Caustic and wounded, Jackman’s Logan was the most identifiably human of all of the X-Men, and beneath the cigar-chomping theatrics, you sensed his hurt, and his tentative desire for connection.
Jackman has always thrown himself into the role — the problem is that most of the X-Men films have been pretty lousy about servicing the character. The X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie (2009) was a straight-up disaster; while its sequel The Wolverine (2013) had some nifty themes running in its veins (how does a man who cannot die find honor in Japan, land of self-sacrifice?), it was undermined by a clanky finale. One can ladle soap opera twists and character development on Logan all day long, but what most fans of the comic character were thirsting for was a no-holds-barred approach, something beyond the polite confines of a PG-13 rating, a story in which Wolverine had claws and teeth. For those fans, Logan will be manna. Unapologetically gory, potty-mouthed, and bleak, this is a movie that reduces Logan to his essence: scar tissue, a whole lot of attitude, and the slightest flicker of heroism buried somewhere behind his bloodshot eyes.
Right from the start Logan lets us know this ain’t your father’s X-Men. “Fuck” is the first word out of Logan’s mouth, and a scant minute later he’s fucking up a bunch of ruffians who are trying to jack his limo. It’s the year 2029, and the world has become a very inhospitable place indeed. We’re informed that no new mutants have been born in decades, and the rest of them have been hunted to extinction. Stuck in the hinterlands between Texas and Mexico, his once-indestructible body failing, Logan is resigned to lying low as a limo driver, with no one left to hang with except the albino-skinned Caliban (Stephen Merchant, unexpectedly touching), and his old mentor, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), now reduced to a half-coherent wreck on meds, his deteriorating brain officially classified as a weapon of mass destruction. No fancy powers and slick superjets this time — our heroes hide out in an abandoned water tower south of the border, they putter around in rusted-out trucks, and all the fireworks are of the verbal variety. Logan might make noises about buying a boat for seventy thousand bucks and sailing off into the sunset with Charles, but the professor knows it’s all bull: “You’re waiting for me to fucking die!” he spits at him in a more lucid moment.
That would be the end of the story, except that redemption comes calling in the form of a pint-sized mutant named Laura, played without an ounce of preciousness by Dafne Keen. A refugee from illegal experimentation, she needs help getting to North Dakota and a place called “Eden” (the location of which she gets straight from an X-Men comic book, a bit of meta-referencing that turns into a joke, as Logan snorts at his depiction in the comic — “Only about a quarter of this is true,” he mutters). We soon find out that she has a more intimate connection with Logan than expected, and against his better judgment (and with the promise of a big payoff at the end), Logan sets off on a road trip with Laura and Charles in tow. In hot pursuit is the experimenter himself, Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) and his right hand-man Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), a hunter with a cyborg arm and an aw-shucks manner (“I’m a fan, by the way,” he says to Logan at their first meeting). While the oddball pairing of Logan, Laura and Charles results in a few laughs, including a quick and funny bit at a gas station, the tone of the movie is predominantly elegaic. Our heroes might mean well, but as they make their way across an American landscape bleached of all hope, they leave death and chaos in their wake. At a stopover in an Oklahoma casino town, Charles has a psychic episode which nearly exterminates the entire city (and proves to be a dark mirror of the “Time in a Bottle” scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past — instead of Quicksilver zipping gaily around security personnel and giving them wedgies, we have Wolverine struggling to bust out of Charles’ mind control, every tendon popping, and skewering a few similarly frozen baddies along the way). Later, the kindness of a rural family who takes our refugees in is repaid with a very dark resolution.
If the measured pace and plot feel a bit like a western, that’s completely intentional. Logan is a hero’s journey stripped down, like its protagonist, to the raw basics. Logan is a reluctant good guy — like the gunslinger in Shane (which Charles and Laura watch on the TV in their hotel room), he’s a white hat who’s soiled with other people’s blood, and Logan is the first X-Men movie in which the cost of spilling blood is openly confronted. The movie is proud of its grittiness — perhaps a bit too proud. With the incessant f-bombs, the amped-up violence, and the resolutely downbeat tone, the film is like an adolescent comic fan in love with the darkness of it all, showing off its bleakness like a badge of honor. The novelty of the setting and story carry us for a while, but director James Mangold has never been the most dynamic of filmmakers, and too often the film just shuffles along when a few more dramatic jolts would have helped. Still, give him props for staying the course: out of all the doom-drenched superhero movies we’ve had, none stick so tightly to its premise as this one. Redemption may be part of the plan, but the end game results in an overwhelming number of casualties.
Laura: I have nightmares. People hurt me.
Logan: I have nightmares too. I hurt people.
Laura: I hurt people, too. Bad people.
Logan: It’s all the same…
Setting aside the down-to-earth stakes and gloss-free presentation, there’s not a whole lot to the story, or the bad guys. While Holbrook makes for an adequate stock villain, the most memorable antagonist turns out to be “Mutant X-24.” His identity will not be revealed in this review, but his appearance ties in nicely with the movie’s underlying theme that the sins of the past catch up to the present. On the other hand, Grant turns in one very strange performance as Dr. Rice, all whispers and scientific snarls. Every time he begins to pontificate about his aims, the camera veers away from him, as if spectacularly disinterested in his ravings. Fortunately, Jackman and Stewart supply the movie with the emotional charge it needs. Allowed to indulge his Shakespearian impulses, Stewart rages and quails like King Lear, and while Jackman must do a slower burn with his character, his chemistry with Keen plays like an updated take on the classic Wolf and Lone Cub series — if you can imagine the cub being even more deadly than the wolf.
The conclusion of Logan plays like a final hurrah for Jackman and Stewart, who have both proclaimed that this will be their last appearances in the X-Men universe, and if that’s the case, it’s a fitting capper. The film has almost nothing in common with the other X-Men movies, but as Jackman navigates the long road from growly misanthropy to something that resembles the hope of younger days, closing the circle on his character, we’re reminded once again about the virtues of the X-Men franchise, as erratic as some of the movies have been: these are characters with stakes, and losses, and doubts. An antidote to the consequence-free fluff of the Marvel movies and the mythologized posturing of the DC cinematic universe, Logan makes a ultimately stirring case for superheroes who might not be so super, but manage to attain a certain grace nonetheless.