Hugh Jackman’s stint playing James Howlett, aka Logan, aka Wolverine, has weathered seventeen years and appearances in nine films. Jackman’s popularity in the role has survived in spite of the fact that several of those entries run the gamut from weak to really bad. His stature in the cinematic X-Men universe initially gained traction because he contrasted his companions so vividly, an unkempt, hairy, spiky outsider and instinctual creature, opposing the noble clannishness of the X-Men crew, captained by the paralysed yet sagastic Charles “Professor X” Xavier (Patrick Stewart) but defined by its inclusiveness, its teeming population open to all manner of perversity, the notion of the safe space rendered as a sociological paradigm. The tension between the one and the all in X-Men is this fictional creation’s defining trait. Although it was arguably the female characters like Storm, Rogue, and Jean Grey who genuinely dominated and powered the storylines of the early and far superior films in the cycle, and Xavier and Magneto who shunted it along on a rhetorical level, it’s the Wolverine who became the icon, for his gruff, cynical brand of heroism, his encapsulation of an old-fashioned ideal of masculinity uneasily negotiating his way in a modern world either outright hostile or comically anodyne. Logan gained his own spin-off series of movies, kicking off with the downright awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and continuing through the lumpy, pseudo-serious The Wolverine (2013).
Now, with Jackman presumably tiring of his workout routine, Logan proposes to bring his chronicle to a slam-bang close, and to do so recreates the X-Men world in a way that purely suits his loner mystique. Thus, in 2029, most other mutants have now died, decimated by attempts to harness their genetic advantages, leaving Logan living a marginal existence, caring for the addled Xavier with the aid of sun-shy seer Caliban (Stephen Merchant) in an abandoned mining facility, and making a living as a limousine driver. At the outset Logan kills a gang of Latino carjackers trying to make off with his limo, and after a few jobs carting around partying teens, returns to his abode with medication for Xavier, who, now in his nineties, is suffering from a degenerative brain disease that occasionally sends him into ranting fits at best and sometimes sees him debilitating whole regions with his wildly uncontrolled psychic powers. Logan’s aid is solicited by a woman who recognises him, Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez): she has a small girl, the seemingly mute Laura (Dafne Keen) in tow, offering him a big wad of cash if he’ll drive them to Los Angeles. Logan claims to be well out of the hero business now, but the money is too good to pass up. When the time comes to leave, however, he finds Gabriella dead in her hotel room, and Laura sneaks into his limo and rides back to his hideout, where Xavier reveals he’s been in psychic contact with her and other young mutants like her.
Laura and her fellow mutants have escaped from the laboratories of Transigen, a genetic experimentation concern run by Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), who concocted the pathogens that wiped out most other X-gene carriers and then started using cloning to create his own, more pliable race of mutants. Now his army of heavies, led by golden-haired, prosthetic-armed creep Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), are chasing down the clones Gabriella, who worked in the lab, helped to escape. When Pierce and a convoy of black-clad, machine-gun-wielding thugs arrive to claim her, Laura quickly reveals that, in spite of her diminutive size, she has Logan’s powers, including razor claws, and she tears her way through the force, before Logan flees with her and Xavier. Caliban, taken prisoner by Pierce, is forced to aid him in tracking them across country. Laura hopes to make her way to a sanctuary for mutants subsisting in the North Dakota hills called Eden, a hope installed in her by Gabriella, a fan of the X-Men comics which, in this reality, are trashy artefacts celebrating the adventures of the now-vanished race. Logan starts well in this manner, offering the irresistible if gruelling spectacle of Logan and Xavier, the two most temperamentally mismatched mutants around, stuck with each-other, playing father and son. One is slipping into senescence and the other suffering a slow and agonising decline because the adamantium coating his skeleton is slowly poisoning him, retarding his healing abilities, a waning of the flesh matched by that of his aching, wearied soul.
The more “adult” prescriptions of a harsher censorship classification lets Mangold offer some grisly bloodshed, severed heads and limbs aplenty. More pertinently, the tone here is reminiscent of the way Bryan Singer introduced the franchise in his series opener, pruning back generic tropes and weighing up what’s left carefully, as when he notes Logan agonisingly drawing one of his reluctant claws out to proper extension. Stewart has a field day playing a decaying titan, relishing his new profanity-laden dialogue and the script’s readiness to swap the X-Men template’s fascination for the peculiarities of youth as manifested physically for the aged version of the same. As a carer myself, the scene in which Logan has to take Xavier to the bathroom to pee struck home. The theme of Logan being obligated to live up to unexpected responsibilities as a father – Laura, a clone of his genetic material, is in essence his daughter – is on the other hand infinitely more familiar, and indeed something of a cliché of recent ploys to give straight-arrow action movies heart. The symbolic factor in Logan’s decline, a figure who has hitherto been presented as literally immortal whereas most genre heroes are only that figuratively, as he’s debilitated by a foreign substance in his body, clearly references the bullet in the back that serves the same function in El Dorado (1966). Director and co-screenwriter James Mangold more blatantly references Shane (1953) by having Xavier and Laura watch it in a hotel room, a touch that counts as the film's very own, built-in spoiler alert.
That Mangold wants to stitch the Wolverine back into the mythical fabric he sprang from, the lone gunslinger traversing wildernesses moral and environmental, is fair enough, but it means throwing the whole creative universe he’s part of under a bus. Mangold, who also made The Wolverine, has been one of Hollywood’s solider workhorses over the years on fare like Identity (2003) and Walk the Line (2005), bringing skill with actors and a fair sense of visual mood to his projects. He’s the kind of solid, efficient, mildly artful director Hollywood used to prize and urgently lacks today, but that doesn’t mean he’s the modern equivalent of Howard Hawks. His limitations are just as jaggedly apparent as his qualities: his feel for dramatic interaction is strong, but the scripts he takes in hand tend to be blowsy, fumbling their way between story points and getting lost on pointless side-tracks, and he has even less conceptual imagination in sci-fi than Joss Whedon. Mangold’s takes on this genre have been painfully overrated in large part because, instead of playing them as middling special effects spectacles, he plays them as middling ‘80s-style action-thrillers. The Wolverine expended a great chunk of its running time on a romance that had absolutely no impact whilst wasting good supporting characters before resolving in a dolorous action climax.
Logan is an improvement on that entry, at least, but still falls prey to second-act indecision and stumbles towards a finale that lacks the kind of epic, classical power it so desperately courts, because Mangold has no real sense of action staging or iconography. The first major punch-up, as Logan and company flee their former home, is well-done, with an amusing sense of mounting chaos as Laura first unveils her feral attitude and ending with Logan’s limo dragging a fence line through a queue of enemies. But Logan quickly resolves into mere conventionality as it unfolds, failing to take time constructing a convincing rapport between Logan and his “daughter”, who takes about three-quarters of the film to get to the inevitable revelation that she can speak, and then tries for pathos right at the end that carries no punch. All this after a film that spends an interminable time walking Logan back through the regulation reluctant-hero act he should have rightly dispensed with three movies ago: when Logan is still huffing and hawing about ten minutes from the end I shouted at the screen, “Do something!” Mangold touches base with some now-familiar templates for today’s blockbuster filmmakers, melding together ‘80s road-trip tales and motifs borrowed from John Carpenter, Stephen King, and particularly George Miller. But it felt to me less like a loving tribute or tip of the hat than a leftover spec script from the times when high concept melding was all the rage, with Logan and his claws pencilled in.
Mangold sees the characters get some time out with a farming family headed by Will (Eriq LaSalle) and Kathryn Munson (Elise Neal), a bunch of likeable, giving just-folks who spend their time butting heads with big agribusinesses whose giant automated crop-tending machines march across the landscape, and their local law-enforcing minions. I think Mangold wanted to draw some sort of link here between the kinds of outmatched ordinary farmers in westerns with a very slightly futuristic concern for the losers in contemporary economics, but the point feels apropos of nothing, as the two camps of bad guys collide and dice each-other up to no thematic effect or excitement at all. Rice has a full-grown clone of Logan (Jackman again) he sends in to do dirty work, cueing a sequence in which Mangold bluffs the audience to think Logan himself has entered the house, only for the clone to lash out, skewering Xavier and much of Munson’s family in a rampage. Along the way on this journey we’re privileged to watch Transigen’s private army rolling around the landscape and venturing into battles with organisms they’ve cultivated and nurtured and yet seem woefully unprepared to take on, coming on dumber than Stormtroopers. Mangold kills off Xavier cheaply, undercutting all his carefully worked emotional refrains – the moment Xavier says he’s had his happiest night in a long time you know he’s about to become fish food. I’m not even sure what Xavier is doing in this - how many times has he died now? - although judging by some of his raving early in the film we’re looking at one of the potential timelines sprouting from the ostentatious reboot that capped X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014).
By the time we get to the finale, a sequence that feels more like a happenstance middle-act chase scene rather than the apotheosis of a great hero’s saga (not since Beowulf has such a figure gone down to such a no-name opponent), we get some desperately-needed exposition rattled off by Grant that nonetheless raises more questions than it answers. Pierce, our anointed major villain here (Holbrook tackles the role with sufficient jittery, truculent energy to at least make him mildly hissworthy) gets his comeuppance from being rolled up in grass by the mutant kids. Yes folks, grass. The vulgar embrace of blood-lust tosses out the ethos that was the point of all Xavier’s labours, and indeed, if it wasn’t for Stewart’s inherent gravitas, the film would feel utterly cut off from the predecessors that are supposed to lend it emotional heft. It would be fair to say Logan is easily the best X-Men entry since Matthew Vaughan’s pleasantly pulpy X-Men: First Class (2011), but that’s a very low bar. Logan does quite a few things right, and yet taken as a whole represents something of a debasement of both the X-Men imprimatur and the traditions it quotes but cannot truly animate. The whole affair makes me think even better of Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (2005), a film which, for all its tinny lines, actually built up a sense of wild, outsized tragic spectacle in its finale. Logan is admirable in most of its aims, particularly the attempt to rescale the superhero story to human size again, and the very last shot does finally wield some of the melancholic grandeur Mangold wants to invoke. Although supremely unlikely, I found myself aching to know what Michael Mann might have made of this material – the man who made The Last of the Mohicans (1992) knows how to stage this kind of elemental action and make it seem like worlds are pivoting. Logan invokes a hemispheric mythos as it unfolds, but all I really felt here was contracts expiring, and to quote another great balladeer of the American landscape, in the end, nothing was revealed.