Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the setting of the film “Pacific Rim.”
A refreshing summer cocktail of action-movie staples, “The Wolverine” combines the bracingly adult flavor of everyone’s favorite mutant antihero — tortured, boozy X-Man Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine — with the fizzy effervescence of several mixers from the cabinet of Japanese genre cinema: noirish yakuza crime drama, samurai derring-do and ninja acrobatics. It goes down super smooth but packs a punch, erasing not only the memory of Marvel’s last foray into the Wolverine mythos, the 2009 stinker “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but also washing away the more recent unpleasant aftertaste of this summer’s other Asian-set action thriller, “Pacific Rim.”
It’s proof that you just can’t kill Wolverine.
But, Lord, how this movie tries.
After a brief prologue, the film opens on the titular hero (Hugh Jackman), who is now a virtually homeless alcoholic living in a squalid encampment in the woods, where he’s plagued by nightmares starring his late lady love, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Fans of the “X-Men” series of movies will recall that Logan was forced to kill Jean at the end of the final chapter of the “X-Men” trilogy, 2006’s “The Last Stand.”
In short order, however, our hero is on his way to Tokyo, escorted by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a magenta-haired Harajuku girl whose powers of persuasion are enhanced by her skill with a samurai sword. A mutant with the ability to foretell people’s deaths, she’s a great character, hinting at a soul as dark as Logan’s. My one complaint is that the film doesn’t do more with her; she and Logan are kindred spirits.
Yukio has been sent to retrieve Logan on behalf of her elderly patron, Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), who is dying. As we learn in the prologue, Logan was once a World War II prisoner outside Nagasaki, Japan, where he saved Yashida’s life after the atomic bomb was dropped. (Yes, Logan is capable of surviving a nuclear blast. If you have a problem with the physics of that, you might as well stop reading now.)
Yashida, it seems, wants to say more than goodbye and thank you to his old friend. He has summoned Logan to take advantage of his healing powers, whether the world-weary mutant is ready to relinquish them or not. That theme — that Logan’s immortality is both a blessing and a curse, and that Logan might actually welcome death — has been explored before, especially in the “Origins” film. There, it was flogged to numbing effect. Here, it’s a garnish that doesn’t get in the way of the fun.
Fun, of course, is subjective.
It may be a bit of a cliche, but Yashida’s family has both violent mob connections and a long history of association with ninjas, embodied by Harada (Will Yun Lee), a bodyguard who wields a bow and arrow like Legolas. When Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is abducted by gunmen, Logan’s nihilistic instincts are overridden by his heroic ones and he becomes the young woman’s protector and lover.
One of the film’s great set pieces is a fight between Logan and a knife-carrying Japanese thug that’s staged atop a speeding bullet train carrying Mariko. The choreography is terrific, if patently absurd, as they duck and flip in order to avoid getting slashed, or bashed in the head by passing signs.
Logan, meanwhile, after a fleeting encounter with Yashida’s femme-fatale doctor (Svetlana Khodchenkova), finds his recuperative abilities increasingly compromised.
Trust me, it’s all a lot less complicated than it sounds.
Where “The Wolverine” delivers isn’t in plot, but in its core dynamic, which places Logan in the familiar, if somewhat paternalistic, role of savior. That’s a welcome change from “Origins,” in which his primary motivation was ugly revenge. It’s perhaps fitting that his character here, when we first encounter him in the woods, all bearded and long-haired, looks a bit like Jesus Christ. It’s symbolism that’s driven home by all the bullet wounds that he sustains, and which no longer instantaneously heal, leaving bloody stigmata. Could the theme of martyrdom be any more obvious?
But forget all that.
There’s nothing particularly heavy about “The Wolverine.” That is, other than a suit of souped-up samurai armor that’s made of the same indestructible metal as Wolverine’s retractable claws. Surely you’ve seen the image on all the bus-shelter ads?
No? Then you’re clearly not paying attention.
Everyone else who has been will not be disappointed, least of all by the closing-credits teaser. For the love of all that is mutant, you’ll want to stay for a glimpse of what promises to be not only a deeply satisfying resurrection of the Wolverine, but also certain other beloved characters, in next year’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains action violence, some obscenity and brief sensuality. 131 minutes.