Even if "The Wolverine" doesn't entirely clear away the stench of its misbegotten predecessor, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," this latest adventure of grizzled mutant Logan (Hugh Jackman) feels like a return to form for the oft-erratic "X-Men" series.
Moments in "The Wolverine" rank among both the franchise's best and worst, but there's enough in the positive column to make the movie a must for fans and entertaining viewing for casual observers.
This time around, we find Logan hiding out in the Yukon wilderness, haunted by both the loss of his beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, who turns up throughout as a ghostly presence) and his survival of the nuclear blast at Nagasaki, where Logan was being held captive at the bottom of a deep well in a Japanese POW camp.
On that fateful day, he saved the life of soldier Yashida (Ken Yamamura). Now, in the present day, a dying Yashida -- who has become a powerful electronics magnate in Japan -- has summoned Logan to his deathbed, ostensibly to say goodbye but actually to offer Logan the opportunity to pass his immortality along to Yashida, so that the tormented Logan can find the death he craves.
Logan turns down the offer, but soon finds himself enmeshed in the Yashidas' family drama; granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) has been chosen to inherit the company, much to the fury of her father Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada). Meanwhile, the elder Yashida's physician (Svetlana Khodchenkova) lurks about with intent, and it becomes apparent that she intends to take away Logan/Wolverine's regenerative powers whether or not he wants to surrender them.
"The Wolverine" works best in the scenes between Logan and Mariko -- readers of the original Marvel Comics know the key role she plays in his life, although they may be surprised that the big-screen Logan speaks not one lick of Japanese -- and when the Wolverine fights side by side with psychic Yukio (Rila Fukushima), an impoverished orphan adopted, "Wuthering Heights"-style, as a young girl to be a companion for Mariko.
Yukio's fighting style, to say nothing of her cherry-Kool-Aid bangs and striped ensembles, will no doubt make her a favorite of the cosplay set, and newcomer Fukushima makes an immediate impression, more than holding her own opposite veteran Jackman, who can do the Wolverine squint-and-grunt on auto-pilot by this point.
Alas, "The Wolverine" gets too distracted by corporate intrigue, Yashida's diabolical plans and the villainy of the doctor; none of that stuff is as compelling as the two female leads, particularly since Khodchenkova gives a singularly flat performance. I can't remember a less engaging villain in contemporary superhero cinema.
Screenwriters Scott Frank and Mark Bomback seem to be working off a checklist of Cool Japan Stuff: Before the movie is over, we get bullet trains, ninjas, pachinko parlors and love hotels. (Maybe the DVD extras will include deleted scenes featuring harajuku girls and panty-vending machines.)
For every good idea they've got (that bullet train fight sequence is breathtakingly exciting), the writers too often falter, larding the script with too many characters and clumsily forcing people to define words like "ronin" and "yakuza" in conversation, even when the other person would clearly already know the meaning.
Still, in the final wash, "The Wolverine" provides a compelling look into a beloved screen character and offers up enough excitement to merit its existence. (Make sure to stick around after the credits for a glimpse at where the "X-Men" movies are going next.)
It may not make the case that Logan merits his own solo projects, but it will scratch your X-itch until the next big-screen mutant adventure comes along.