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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Overcast
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The Wolverine adds mutants and ninjas to an angst-ridden family drama
Sci-fi soap opera
Mushiness meets misanthropy.
Mushiness meets misanthropy.

I wonder if The Wolverine will appeal to audiences who aren't deeply invested in the mythology of X-Men comic books. I'm talking about moviegoers who just want a pile-on of mutant action. I love the freshness of this movie's set pieces, but at its heart, the story is all about its protagonist, Logan, as a mutant and a man.

The Wolverine is almost a science-fiction soap opera, in fact. This is a multigenerational family drama revolving around Yashida (Hal Yamanouchi), the richest industrialist in Japan, who is now on his deathbed. Logan (Hugh Jackman) knew him years earlier, during World War II. Yashida was a soldier, and Logan was a prisoner of war in Nagasaki on the day the Americans dropped the A-bomb. Yashida's dying wish is to see Logan again, for reasons I won't spoil, so he sends his granddaughter Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to fetch him. Well, she's not actually his granddaughter. It's complicated, as soap operas often are.

Further complicating matters is Logan's reluctance to have much human contact. He's living like a hermit on a snowy Canadian mountain range, and his best friend is a bear, which turns out to be more sad than funny. But he eventually gives in. Jackman, in a gloriously cranky turn, makes Logan into a muscle-bound misanthrope as well as a soft and mushy type. And Yukio, who happens to be a lady mutant, sees right through him.

Then we're in Japan. No movie has made me want to go to Tokyo more than this one. Director James Mangold stages a thrilling foot chase through the city streets, before a battle atop a bullet train. I could almost see the motion lines that this fight would have had on the page. Later we meet a secret society of medieval ninjas with poisoned arrows. It's all extremely cool.

And it's all filled with soap-opera tropes. Logan brims with emotional torment and aching vulnerability. He's haunted by the ghost of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who begs him to figure out how to die and join her in the afterlife. This is a genuine possibility since Yashida has discovered a way for Logan to transfer his healing powers to someone else, and since Logan has wounds that suddenly aren't healing. Wolverine has found his kryptonite, but its source is a mystery.

I don't want to make The Wolverine sound overly gloomy. It's good summer popcorn fun. Jackman clearly enjoys his character, outing after outing. In fact, a low-key turn for Logan is precisely what's called for. Wolverine himself might not see it as low-key, but as bombastic action flicks go, this is downright relaxing.

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