When a character in “Logan” whispers the line, “Don’t be what they made you,” it’s as if writer and director James Mangold deliberately put it there as a reminder that his new movie needed to be vastly different from the last time he and leading man Hugh Jackman took “The Wolverine” to the big screen.
It didn’t take much to be better than director Gavin Hood’s universally maligned 2009 disappointment, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” but Mangold’s 2013 follow-up showed none of the filmmaking craftsmanship I expected to see based on a resume of outstanding dramas like “Walk The Line,” “Girl, Interrupted,” and “Cop Land.” Instead of finally bringing fans the appropriately edgy, violent adventure they’d been denied the first time around, “The Wolverine” stuck within the Marvel template, complete with a giant CGI robot fight sequence at the film’s climax. The reception was better, but it didn’t stand out enough from the “X-Men” franchise to justify its existence.
With “Logan,” Mangold was tasked with giving Hugh Jackman a grand send-off for his final turn playing the role he originated back in 2000 when Wolverine first appeared on the big screen. Stripping away nearly all of the familiar superhero movie trappings in favor of an action drama set in an alternate future where mutants (including Logan’s former teammates) are all but extinct, the film is a bleak, gory, expletive-filled right turn from what audiences are used to seeing. Unlike Marvel’s R-rated hit, “Deadpool,” “Logan” is a dark and humorless affair designed to appeal to viewers who have been waiting to see Wolverine go all “Rambo 4.”
The big surprise is Spanish pre-teen Dafne Keen (TV’s “The Refugees) as Laura, an escaped clone who was part of a U.S. military mutant-manufacturing experiment gone awry. A frail and dementia-stricken Professor X (Patrick Stewart) recognizes that Laura was cloned from Logan’s DNA, but her retractable claws and accelerated healing ability are dead giveaways, as is her silent, brooding nature and penchant for Wolverine’s “berserker rage” moments that often result in piles of bad guy limbs and slashed-up bodies. Given that the grizzled, rapidly deteriorating Logan is a shadow of his former self, Laura’s wild energy and hair trigger attitude punctuate many of the film’s breathless action set pieces (though Jackman gets his share of them, too).
With all its frequent f-bombs and arterial spray, “Logan” isn’t as grown-up as it aspires to be. What separates it from triumphs like Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (the benchmark for all superhero flicks that seek to translate comic books into great cinema) goes beyond how hard it huffs and puffs with language and violence. Like many Marvel movies, “Logan” insists on having villains even though the audience is focused on the hero, and the script telegraphs nearly all of its most impactful moments, chipping away at them by way of belabored setups that tip the running time into unnecessary length. Like Logan, the Mangold we hope to see is once again lost in the effort and never truly emerges.
Wolverine’s cinematic struggle mirrors the arc of his character, a scientifically modified hero constantly at odds with his natural animalistic side. Decades of fandom and dozens of incarnations on the printed page have yielded a nearly impossible set of expectations for just what the movie version of Logan should be. In any case, what’s clear is that Jackman’s boots will be difficult to fill, and Dafne Keen is more than qualified for the job.