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Film Review: Logan

Logan (2017; Directed by James Mangold)

To be entirely frank, I’m firmly of two minds on Logan, the tenth X-men film, third stand-alone Wolverine film, second in a row directed by James Mangold, and quite prominently the final time Hugh Jackman will play the gruff, adamantium-clawed, self-healing, anti-hero superhero. I can fully appreciate and even admire the film’s dirt-under-the-fingernails realism and character-centric agonized drama, its pained performances from the haggard, limping, coughing, physically and emotionally scarred Jackman, as well as an endearing Patrick Stewart as a fading, elderly Charles Xavier. Its pacing, maintenance of tone, viciously violent action, and interplay of image and sound are all technically expert and sometimes transcendent. When its tender bursts of heartstrings-tugging crop up in its closing stages, they feel earned and honest instead of maudlin and manipulative. But it presents far too often as a film that should be appreciated and admired rather than persuading the viewer to enjoy and be moved by it.

Logan is extremely successful at being what it fully intends to be: a comics superhero movie that is so earnest and grounded that it takes the time for a firm meta repudiation of its comic-book origins as fantasy hogwash. Mangold, directing a script he co-wrote with Scott Frank and Michael Green, weaves the bloody-minded, gritty tangibility of the 1970s semi-independent New American Cinema with the lonely, reluctant cowboy hero of Golden Age Westerns (signalled by a clear intertextual reference to the 1953 genre classic Shane). He does the job so very well that you might be forgiven for asking yourself if he really ought to be doing it. More than any comic-book superhero film since Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Logan self-consciously tries to carve out a serious artistic space in a genre that, despite prodigious commercial dominance, continues to struggle to be treated like prestigious cinematic art by the film industry that it has financially enriched. It’s focused on chipping away at these prejudicial conditions with convincing depictions of wincing suffering so singularly that it can, and does, forget to give its audience a fully enjoyable and rewarding experience.

Logan takes Jackman’s Logan/Wolverine to his final extremity. In rural exurban stretches of a dystopian future America in which nearly all of the multitudinous mutants of the X-Universe have been hunted down and wiped out, Logan whiles away his time and saves his precious pennies in anonimity, driving a stretch limousine in El Paso, Texas. He’s concealing Dr. Xavier in an abandoned smelting plant in Mexico, isolating the old man and drugging him silly to control his debilitating psychic seizures, the result of a degenerating brain that makes him a danger to anyone around him. The sun-shy albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant), who can detect the presence of other mutants, aids him in caring for Professor X, though he suspects Logan will exclude him from his retirement escape plan on a private boat in sunny climes.

Logan’s longtime desire to be left alone to pour salt in his many open wounds (his physical ones increasingly remain so, his healing powers’ gradual desertion of his body a sign of its slow degeneration) is irritatingly doubly interrupted. First, a Mexican nurse (Elizabeth Rodriguez) implores him to help her and a small girl in her care named Laura (Dafne Keen, giving the most hypnotic child performance in a gory action film since Natalie Portman in Leon). Logan brushes her aside, but begins to reconsider when Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook, a sort of low-rent Southern clone of Charlie Hunnam, himself a clone of a real movie star), the head of security for a mysterious multinational genetics corporation, comes asking after the girl, whose origins his employers likely have something to do with. Laura, who is far more like Logan that he suspects, winds up as his reluctant charge, and the two of them and Xavier set off on a cross-country odyssey to a supposed northern borderland safe haven for mutants with Pierce and his mutie-hunting cyborg squad of Reavers in hot pursuit.

Logan, Xavier, Laura, and their intermittent allies stay barely ahead of and frequently violently dispatch Pierce’s waves of black-clad SWAT types, with calm-but-tense interludes of quiet dialogue, emotional character scenes, and tantalizing but ever-ephemeral shadows of normality interspersed in between the blood. Logan’s path was largely blazed by the smashing success of last year’s similarly-rated X-verse entry Deadpool (and not just in the droll Superman-referencing short scene featuring the red-and-black-suited wag superhero played by Ryan Reynolds running before it in theatres), and the vicious graphic violence of its fight sequences fully earns its R rating in the U.S. It’s “mature” if not actually mature, much as Deadpool was.

Logan thus presents as a strange and sometimes deep-cutting hybrid of Sam Peckinpah, Little Miss Sunshine, spaghetti westerns, and the murkier corners of the Marvel screen universe. It even pulls off its own edgier and more tragic version of the idyllic farmhouse pause in the centre of Avengers: Age of Ultron, giving the weary, besieged travelers a brief reprieve among a humble rural family (Eriq La Salle, Elise Neal, and Quincy Fouse) while the narrative is allowed to breathe. The film’s slow burn to a gory climax rises further to an emotional crescendo which cannot be said not to be moving (shrink away from the incandescence of that bit of praise!). Mangold is a skilled enough director to not merely signal an audience how to feel but compel them to feel that way, too, and he vitally tempers Logan‘s scraped-knuckle grimness with a glow of hope.

Jackman staggers and wheezes through a worn-down take on the character that he has defined (and that, for better or worse, has defined him) for 17 years. Exasperated with his artificially extended existence without legacy, stripped of the surrogate X-family that gave him a tentative identity and sense of belonging, his heaving but scarred body a haunted house full of the restless poltergeists of a century of killing, Jackman’s Logan suffers with exquisite persistence here. If there was nothing else to great acting than that (and the Academy’s tendencies of awarding performances that privilege such suffering might persuade you into believing there isn’t), Jackman would be an early frontrunner for Best Actor a year from now. The Academy is unlikely to overcome ingrained genre prejudices for Logan, though, and I’m not saying he is that good here, either; Jackman is, and always has been, too much of a performer to excavate into the deep place of any character, let alone a grumbling mutant with a history of violence and a skeleton of adamantium.

Perhaps inspired by his co-star’s exertions, Stewart’s Charles Xavier (also his last kick at the X-can, if recent press statements can be believed) feebly battles to keep senility and death at bay and maintain an element of himself amidst unspeakable loss and a total defeat of all that he dedicated his life to achieving. With his most well-known work coming in the imaginative, fantastical genres, it’s been easy to undervalue Stewart as an actor, but he is a very, very fine one and shows every bit of his observant, empathetic quality here. Some praise should also be reserved for Stephen Merchant as Caliban, who imbues a fairly thankless supporting role with a deep but irony-edged despondency and dogged buried bravery.

Logan, then, has some good performances, a reasonably character-driven plot sequence, and solid, even exciting, action scenes. Its closing surge of feeling is genuine and potent, giving the prior labors a patina of meaning. All of this should add up to a good (borderline great, even) movie, right? I’m not so sure. Perhaps, as good as this Wolverine movie is, it can only ever be a Wolverine movie, and how much is that ultimately worth? Maybe the most succinct and accurate review I’ve read, in the form of a brief tweet, said exactly that. Logan has an abiding ambition to be more than it is, to transcend and even upend its generic constraints. It should get there, by all of the evidence available. It doesn’t, and it’s difficult to pinpoint a single reason why, other than to speculate that maybe, in spite of the best efforts of all involved, it simply can’t be what it is and also more than it is.

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