There’s more explicit violence, more spilled viscera and cartwheeling lopped off limbs in the first three minutes of Logan than there has been in the entirety of Hugh Jackman’s lengthy tenure as Wolverine. Oh and F-bombs too. This, the 48-year old Jackman’s last cinematic hurrah as Wolverine before he hangs up the claws for good, doesn’t just have gore and salty language for the sake of gore and salty language though. Those two aspects, and the way they’re delivered by Jackman – a combination of equal wounded animal rage and drunken sloppiness – stands as your early in-your-face harbingers: This is going to be unlike any comic book movie you’ve ever seen.
Over the course of its 137 minute running time, Logan lives up to that promise and then some, as director/co-writer James Mangold uses those outbreaks of shocking brutality to punctuate stretches of sombre, emotionally rich character work. In a bit of clever contradictory storytelling, all those arterial geysers and unspooled bowels actually feed the film’s pronounced overall dark drama tone, as Logan thematically explores both the physical and emotional toll of a life as blood soaked as the once-great X-Man.
And that price was obviously, painfully steep as when we meet Logan in that aforementioned bit of slaughter in 2029, he’s a far cry from the costumed superhero we once knew. Mutankind, once positioned as the next step on the evolutionary ladder, has instead all but died out. Similarly, Logan’s own mutant healing factor, at one time capable of performing miracles, is failing as rapidly as his health. This has left his body a patchwork of bone-white scar tissue and suppurating wounds that won’t heal properly. More than that, his bloodshot, rheumy eyes can barely hide Logan’s heartbreaking realization of his own dead-end life. You get the strong impression that when he rages here, it’s mostly at himself.
This hobbled Wolverine, his costumed heroic history now resigned to exaggerated retellings in X-Men comics, mostly spends his time as a limo driver couriering bacchanalian young commuters back and forth across the US/Mexico border. When he’s not stuck behind the wheel of some sorority drink-and-drive, he’s taking care of a frail and aged Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), secreted away in a massive collapsed water tower south of the border. In a horrifically ironic twist of fate, the X-Men founder’s mind, once one of the most powerful forces on the planet, has been laid to waste through a degenerative brain disease. Xavier is a now telepathic nuclear bomb with a malfunctioning trigger, only kept from mentally flensing everybody around him by the daily cocktail of drugs supplied by Logan and albino mutant helper Caliban (Stephen Merchant).
The dusty routine of their lives is disrupted though by Laura (Dafne Keen), a mysterious mute little girl who bears some deadly similarities to Logan and is thrust into his charge against his will. While initially gruffly unwelcoming of Laura and the mission to see her safely to an equally mysterious mutant Eden on the other side of the country, Logan receives all the motivation he needs when the slimy Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) oozes into the picture with a band of paramilitary thugs who have no qualms about killing to get to Laura for their own nefarious purposes. Luckily – well, not for them – Logan is inclined to do some killing right back.
Before James Mangold previously took his first dip into the comic book movie world with this film’s predecessor, The Wolverine, he was mainly known for either making westerns (see: 3:10 To Yuma) or movies that may as well be westerns (See: Walk the Line). And Logan is no different. This is as far removed from the spandex and leather crowd of previous X-Men films as can be, instead thrusting us into this hazy western-esque world, populated by drawling heroes as broken inside as their dreams. And thanks to some fantastic performances bringing to life Mangold’s vision, we totally buy into it.
English funnyman Merchant’s acerbic wit still shines through layers of white makeup, while Holbrook’s villainous Pierce is just a sleazy southern delight. Richard E. Grant pops up later as the prerequisite mad scientist that injects the little bit of traditional comic book-ness into this affair. Newcomer Keene may be mostly mute, but still manages to say a lot through the role’s physicality (and if you know your comics, you know that her role gets incredibly physical). Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the experience spectrum, Stewart plays the beleaguered Xavier as a tragic figure with an unexpectedly potty mouth – his best showing yet as the character (and as recently revealed, also his last).
But as good as all these actors are, it’s not their name headlining the posters. And Jackman fully deserves that top billing, by putting in a spectacularly muscular, X-Men career high performance.. Finally provided with the material and breathing room to truly be the best he is at what he does, Jackman puts in a layered, gruelingly emotional turn, but one that’s still tinted with moments of unreserved tenderness, making it all the more tragic. And in a genius move, Mangold has Logan and Xavier take on the respective roles of a son taking care of his addled father, adding an extra dynamic that just feeds into the film’s overarching theme of legacy.
It’s those type of quieter character moments, of which there are far more than these films generally ever get allotted, that really stand tall as the highlights. And that is really saying something when these sobering dramatic arcs are in competition with the intensely brilliant bone-crunching, brain-stabbing action choreography, but Mangold balances these juxtaposing elements masterfully though. On top of that he also shows a brilliant eye for framing scenes, including a particularly sublime parting shot. It’s a tad too on-the-nose with some of its western cinematic influences, and there’s a bit of scripting fat that can be trimmed, but as both a gripping character drama and brutal action movie Logan succeeds wildly.
How it’s taken Hollywood nearly two decades to realize that a film surrounding a berserker mutant whose defining traits are being able to absorb an ungodly amount of violence and then being able to dish it out even worse thanks to the six-inch implements of razor sharp death adorning the ends of his fists needs to be handled with adult sensibilities, is simply beyond me. Even worse is the fact that now just as James Mangold has finally cracked the code of how it should be done, we’ll get no more. As disheartening as that may be though, it is incredibly poetic that Hugh Jackman’s final outing as Wolverine is also his best. And one of the best films of the year thus far.