Blood on the Claws

I liked X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Now that I have totally obliterated most of my nerd cred with that statement, let me say that XMO:W is not a perfect movie. It has many problems, the biggest being that it is simply overstuffed. It feels more like an X-Men movie than the Wolverine movie it was supposed to be.

I mean, I would’ve been fine with just Wolverine and Sabretooth. Those two characters have a lot of comic-book history together, and Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber are good actors with good chemistry. But then, for some reason, the movie had to go and add Deadpool, Cyclops, Gambit, Blob, some dude who controls electricity, a teleporting guy played by one of those jackasses from the Black Eyed Peas (I really hate the Black Eyed Peas), some other dude whose mutant power appears to be that he’s really good with guns, Wolverine’s mutant love interest (“Mutant Love Interest” would be a good name for a rock band) and probably a couple others I’m forgetting.

There’s just no real reason all of those dudes had to be in the movie. There were simply too many of them, and the film’s relatively brief 107-minute running time just couldn’t really support the balancing act of having them all in there.

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TOO MANY. And that’s only like half the cast that’s on this poster. There’s so damn many they couldn’t even fit ‘em all in one poster. And when you have that many characters in a fairly short film, most of them don’t get much to do and end up distracting from the main character.

But despite this rather significant flaw, I still found XMO:W to be an enjoyable filmgoing experience. There were some good fights, the acting was generally good (even though many of the actors had little to do) and overall I found it entertaining enough. It does boast a fantastic opening credits sequence, showing Wolverine and Sabretooth battling through a century of war, from the American Civil War to both World Wars, and finally Vietnam.

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I for one would totally watch a movie called “Wolverine and Sabretooth Kill Nazis for an Hour and a Half.”

The good news is that the makers of “The Wolverine,” the titular hero’s brand-new movie, have taken the criticism of the previous movie to heart and made a much more focused, coherent, and thoughtful picture, which is evident in both the film’s title and poster.

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I love this poster. Simple. Elegant. Visually striking. Uncluttered by background characters. Lets you know what the movie is about- it’s about Wolverine, and it’s set in Japan, which is reflected in the distinctive art style. A simple, memorable, effective image.

Ditto for the film’s title. The title “The Wolverine” does a good job indicating the main focus of the film, with minimal fuss. The focus this time is squarely on ol’ pointy-hands, and the only other character to appear in this film who appeared in previous X-Men movies is Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey, and she only appears in dream/fantasy sequences (since she’s, you know, dead).

Anyway, the movie starts with a prologue sequence set in Japan near the end of World War 2, where a young Logan saves a Japanese Army officer from being obliterated by the atomic bomb (“Young” is  a relative concept for Wolverine since he’s already like a hundred years old at this point, but whatever). It’s a tense, effective sequence, and it gets the film off to an exciting start. Flash forward to the present day, where Logan is living in the wilderness in Canada, tormented by his guilt over the death of his love Jean Grey, whom he was forced to kill at the end of the previous (chronological) X-Men movie.

He is eventually found by a young Japanese woman named Yukio, who represents Yashida, the Japanese army officer Logan saved from the bomb in the beginning of the film. Yashida has since become a successful businessman, but as you might expect, he is now quite old and close to death.

Yashida makes Logan an offer: he’s kept tabs on Logan over the years, and he knows that Logan considers his immortality a curse since everyone he loves dies, so he offers to transfer Logan’s healing powers into his own body, which will save Yashida and make Logan mortal (For those of you not into comic book lore, Logan’s healing powers make him basically immortal. Also, to alleviate potential confusion, Wolverine and Logan are the same person, and I’m going to use the names interchangeably).

And this leads to an interesting question, namely, the age-old question of vulnerability. If you’ve read just about anything I’ve ever posted on this blog, you’re probably aware that I’m all about vulnerable protagonists. An invincible hero is kind of hard to root for, and I praised Guillermo Del Toro a few weeks ago for figuring out how to make audiences care about the giant monster-killing deathbots in Pacific Rim.

The character of Wolverine presents an interesting question: how do you care about a guy who’s an unstoppable killing machine with unbreakable metal coated to his bones and who heals from every grievous injury in a matter of seconds? This is, after all, a guy who is capable of surviving an atomic bomb detonation.

It’s a problem the late, great Roger Ebert had with the character too. Ebert described Wolverine as basically a vehicle for action sequences, since nothing can kill him. It’s a very valid point, and it’s one that The Wolverine’s director James Mangold cited as an influence on the new film.

How do you make him vulnerable, then? Why, you take away the healing powers. Or at least you suppress them, since Logan still gets shot quite a few times and survives, though at one point he does need a few bullets pulled out of him.

But even this is just one kind of vulnerability, and that is physical vulnerability. There’s more to the character of Wolverine than just physicality. No, really, bear with me. Yes, I am actually saying that there is more to the character of a guy with unbreakable metal claws in his hands than just physical strength. Logan is an emotionally vulnerable character. As The Wolverine opens, he’s living as a hermit in the middle of the Canadian wilderness, tormented by the knowledge of having had to kill the woman he loved, and not wanting to get close to anyone because it would be too hard to lose them again.

Wouldn’t that suck? I mean, the idea of being able to live longer than everyone else may sound kind of cool at first, but wouldn’t you eventually get tired of having everyone you’re close to die? Logan certainly is, so at the beginning of the film he’s distancing himself from the world, and is reluctant to accept Yukio’s invitation to take him to Japan to meet with Yashida.

So when the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) inevitably attack and Logan goes into hiding with Yashida’s lovely granddaughter Mariko, he’s understandably reluctant to open up to her.

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Mariko is played by Tao Okamoto, a successful Japanese model making her film debut in The Wolverine. She gives a really great performance with a lot of heart, making Mariko more than just a damsel in distress. And she is in distress quite often, since various assassins are after her for a significant portion of the film. And though Logan does rescue her a couple times, she proves quite capable of taking care of herself.

I just really liked this movie. It did a great job of exploring different aspects of Wolverine’s character that hadn’t been explored in previous X-Men films. It’s the kind of film that you can enjoy if you haven’t seen any of the other X-Men films, while at the same time providing fan service to longtime X-Fans. The plot does go a bit off the rails near the end with a couple of WTF plot twists, but for the most part it’s a well thought-out, solidly entertaining movie.

This is Hugh Jackman’s fifth time playing Wolverine (sixth if you count his brilliant, three-word cameo in X-Men First Class), and he continues to demonstrate just how good he is in the role. Seriously, I hope the casting director who cast him as Wolverine for Bryan Singer’s original X-Men movie all the way back in 2000 got a nice paycheck for that one. Well done, sir or madam.

And even at 44, Jackman is as physically imposing as ever, if not more so.

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I mean seriously, look at those abs. I read an article in Entertainment Weekly where Jackman said he has to eat seven chicken breasts a day to keep up that physique. That’s some serious dedication right there, people.

The Wolverine is also a bit of a rarity in that Jackman is the only really well-known actor in the film. The rest of the supporting characters are played by mostly Japanese actors (as you might expect since the film is set in Japan) but it’s pretty rare these days to see a major summer blockbuster with only one big-name star.

The rest of the supporting cast is really great, though, don’t get me wrong. I particularly liked Tao Okamoto’s very likable performance as Wolverine’s love interest, and I also really liked Rila Fukushima’s performance as Yukio, who kind of becomes Wolverine’s sidekick.

The Wolverine

With her bright red hair and pixieish face, she kind of looks like an anime character. She’s a tough, likable, and very appealing sidekick who proves to be a surprisingly good sidekick for Wolverine.

The action setpieces in the film are also pretty great, including a creative battle atop a speeding bullet train and an epic final confrontation with the Silver Samurai, a well-known Marvel character making his first film appearance. He was pretty badass. And for the first time ever, there is a bit of red staining those razor-sharp adamantium claws after quite a few bad guys get slashed. Not a lot mind you, since the movie is PG-13, but still.

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So by all means, go see this movie. It’s probably my favorite comic-book movie since The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers last year, which is really saying something. Also, be sure to stick around through the first part of the end credits, or you’ll miss the most exciting post-credits scene in a Marvel movie since Nick Fury first dropped by Tony Stark’s mansion to chat about the Avenger Initiative.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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Also, this is a real Wolverine. You should read about them, these little guys are capable of taking down a moose.

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Guillermo del Toro: Nerd Hero

Pacific Rim is a dream come true for nerds everywhere. No movie since The Avengers last year has had more Nerdgasms-per-minute than this one. It should cement Guillermo del Toro’s status as Nerd Hero of the Highest Order, on a level with Saint Joss Whedon. And, as with World War Z (and The Avengers for that matter), I consider it a minor miracle it even got made in the first place.

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It would have been so easy to screw this up. I think it’s safe to say that there are perhaps a fair number of people out there (myself included) who would go to see a movie about giant robots duking it out with giant monsters regardless of the talent involved. It really is somewhat miraculous that A) this movie got the nine-figure budget required to do this sort of concept convincingly, and B) the movie got a director who actually knows what the hell he’s doing.

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Guillermo del Toro is a respected filmmaker with an Academy Award under his belt (Best Foreign Film for Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006) but he hasn’t really been known as a big-budget blockbuster sort of director. Sure, he’s directed action movies and comic-book adaptations (Blade 2 and Hellboy 2 are my favorites) which have been well-received and modestly financially successful, but until now he hasn’t made a megabudget tentpole blockbuster.

If you’ve seen any of del Toro’s other films, you know he’s got a thing for monsters.

Monsters like this…

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Or (nightmare fuel alert) this…

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Seriously, the scene in Pan’s Labyrinth where this guy shows up is one of the most terrifying scenes I have ever witnessed in any movie ever. Being on the set of a del Toro movie must be like walking into another dimension.

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Just another day on the job.

But what is so great about del Toro is that he doesn’t let the monsters overwhelm the story. Pan’s Labyrinth is an incredibly, heartbreakingly human film despite the fantastical creatures, and Hellboy 2 in particular really makes you feel for the big red guy, because he’s such an outcast. A lot of people can identify with that.

What I’m trying to say with all this is that GDT was the perfect choice of director for Pacific Rim. He’s a talented filmmaker, he knows how to direct an action scene, he’s got a vivid imagination, and, come on, he clearly loves this stuff. His enthusiasm for the material is pretty infectious.

Well now that I’ve waxed eloquent about how great GDT is, let’s get on to the movie, shall we?

Yes, Pacific Rim is a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in the face, and vice-versa. But there is more to it than that.

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Okay, backstory time. I won’t say too much about the plot, but I think a bit of explanation is appropriate.

The giant monsters are called Kaiju, which, as the movie informs us, is a Japanese term for “giant beast.” The giant robots are called Jaegers, which, as the movie also informs us, is German for “hunter.” Some years ago, the Kaiju started appearing out of some sort of dimensional rift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The first one annihilated San Francisco (the poor Golden Gate Bridge is always the first thing to go in these kinds of disaster movies) and blazed a path of destruction before us humans managed to finally bring it down.

We killed the beast, but the cost was just too high. So, when more Kaiju started appearing, we had no choice but to create the Jaegers and deploy them in the ocean where the Kaiju appeared and attempt to kill them before they could reach any major cities. All of this is shown to us in the opening few minutes of the movie.

The way the Jaegers work is that there are two pilots in the cockpit of the robot, which is located in the robot’s head. The pilots are connected to each other via a kind of neural link in a process known as drifting, and they control the robot together. The stronger the bond between the pilots, the better the robot is able to fight. Two pilots are required because the Jaegers are so complex that they are too much for just one pilot to be able to handle.

This has some pretty significant drawbacks, of course. Piloting a Jaeger is still almost too much for even two pilots to handle, and the neural link between the two of them can be problematic. Also, they are so connected to the robot and to each other that they are surprisingly vulnerable. Basically, when the robot gets hurt, the pilots feel it too.

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So it’s not just the robot who is hurting here, the pilots are also in pretty bad shape.

I love this because it makes both the Jaegers and the pilots vulnerable. I mean come on, you’d think a couple of guys encased in several thousand tons of steel would be pretty safe, right? But no. They’re not.

When I saw the trailers for the film, for some reason I had assumed the pilots were controlling the robot from a distance, like they would hang back and control the robot from base or something. I really don’t know why I assumed this. It wasn’t until a few minutes into the film itself that I realized the pilots were actually in the robot, which makes so much more sense in just about every way.

It’s also brilliant because del Toro clearly realizes that it might be just a bit difficult for audiences to care about characters who are safely encased in a giant monster-killing deathbot, so he makes them vulnerable in a way that makes sense in the world the movie creates. If you care about the people in the robot, then you care about the robot, too. Well played, Guillermo.

I’m not going to say much about the actual plot, since the plot itself isn’t really all that special. Suffice to say that a former Jaeger pilot who quit after his brother (who was also his co-pilot) got Om Nommed by a Kaiju in the movie’s opening battle scene is called back into battle by his former boss, the wonderfully-named Stacker Pentecost, to help in the final battle blah blah. You can probably see where this is going, and the plot follows some familiar paths that aren’t all that surprising.

But hey, who cares when the movie is this much fun? The effects and action scenes in this film are pretty stunning, brought vividly to life with the help of that nine-figure budget. A large budget does not always equal a good movie (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay) but it would have been pretty damn hard to make a movie like Pacific Rim convincing with anything less than $200 million.

The movie’s battles are similar in special-effects powered destructiveness to those in Man of Steel, only on a much bigger scale because the combatants themselves are, you know, much, much bigger.

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Like, getting-chucked-through-a-building-demolishes-the-entire-building bigger.

The robot/monster smackdowns in this film are truly epic, and no words I can use to describe them will really do them justice. They deserve to be seen for themselves, in all of their fantastically-realized glory.

Another thing I love about this movie is how well thought-out it is. I’m sure if you really wanted to you could poke holes in the plot, but I still think that this is one of the most fully-realized sci-fi films in some time. The world it portrays is very convincing, and del Toro and his co-screenwriter Travis Beacham really did a stellar job exploring different aspects of the giant robot/monster world that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.

For example, there’s a slum in Hong Kong called the Bone Slums, which is built around the skeletal remains of a fallen Kaiju. There’s also del Toro regular Ron Perlman (he played Hellboy in both Hellboy movies and has been in several of del Toro’s other films) as a dealer in black-market Kaiju body parts named Hannibal Chau. It seems that Kaiju bone powder is good for the, ahem, male potency, and even Kaiju crap makes damn good fertilizer. It’s details like these that make the film’s world seem really genuine and easy to get lost in, despite the film’s far-fetched premise.

There’s also Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost (how’s that for a winning combination of actor and character names?), the Commander of the Jaeger program. Elba is a darn good actor, and he effectively conveys the world-weariness that comes with all those years of punching giant monsters right in their ugly faces.

He’s also suave as hell.

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Cuts a pretty great figure, doesn’t he? This film has me firmly convinced that Elba is one of the smoothest, most badass mofos on the planet. He was also easily the best part of Prometheus last year. Just sayin’. (Also, check out a little movie called The Losers for another fun Elba performance.)

Pacific Rim won’t be for everyone. It’s very BIG and very LOUD, with lots of monster-screeching and metal-tearing. It almost borders on sensory overload at times. Not everyone out there will find this sort of thing appealing. That’s fine. I get it. Not everyone really wants to watch robots punch monsters in the face. Which, again, is totally fine.

HOWEVER, if you do think robot/monster beatdowns sound like a good time at the movies, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. You will not be disappointed. It’s extremely well-made by a director who clearly loves the material, it’s got a surprising amount of depth, and it is simply a blast to watch.

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I mean seriously, people. Adam Sandler doesn’t need any more freaking money. Support Guillermo instead. That might become my new slogan.

SUPPORT GUILLERMO 2013!!!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.

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Seriously. He’ll eat you if you don’t see his movie.