★ ★ ★ ★
“Logan” takes a Canadian superhero played by an Australian actor and places him smack dab in the middle of the great American movie genre, the Western. The third solo Wolverine film stars Hugh Jackman in his ninth and final incarnation of the cigar-smoking X-Man but this one is different from the others.
Set in the near future, when “Logan” begins the mutant world seen in the other “X-Men” movies has changed. Mutants are almost extinct, their greatest champion, 90-year-old Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) is senile and his school, the Xavier Institute, shuttered. Wolverine, a mutant blessed with healing powers but cursed with a bad hairstyle and existential angst, tends to Xavier, but age and a lessening of his powers have reduced the superhero to working as a chauffeur in Texas near the Mexican boarder. “Charles, the world is not as it was,” he says ruefully.
He is drawn back into his old life when he takes a job driving an 11-year-old girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to a mysterious safe haven in North Dakota called Eden. Turns out the youngster is a chip off the old block, a clone-daughter of Wolverine. Like her old man the silent but deadly kid—she barely speaks a word until the last half of the film—has regenerative healing powers and retractable adamantium-coated bone claws; like most adolescents she’s volatile, with mood swings and the potential for violence.
They are on the run from the Reavers, a team dedicated to the destruction of the X-Men. Led by part cyborg head of security Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant), a surgeon whose father was killed by Wolverine, the Reavers are ruthless and possibly unstoppable.
Like the superhero at the heart of the movie, “Logan” is angsty and dark, a film that drips with sweat and regret. Director James Mangold tosses away the pop psychology of earlier “X-Men” outings, replacing it with something usually lacking in comic book movies, humanity. Wolverine may have super powers, but he’s never been more human than he is in “Logan.” A lion in winter, he’s a mentor, a friend, a warrior nearing the end of his run. “You are dying,” says Laura. “You want to die. Charles told me.” Sure, he can slice your head off with a flourish of his claws but this time around psychological vulnerability is front and centre, not his physical prowess.
Mangold has also done away with much of the computer-generated clutter that have become a de rigour in superhero flicks. He’s turned Wolverine’s valediction into a traditional drama. Think “Unforgiven” with claws. The character is wounded, wracked with regret for a legacy of bloodshed, a life he never asked for. It’s the kind of existential reckoning that fuelled Westerns like “Winchester 73,” “The Shootist,” “Shane” and “Ride the High Country” and while there are no cowboy hats on display, make no mistake, “Logan” is a call back to the days when antiheroes wore their wounds on their sleeves.
The movie works because Jackman digs deep. His portrayal of Wolverine has grown over the years from cartoon cut out to fully realized character. It would have been easy and probably commercially prudent to allow Wolverine to downplay his anguish and simply have him slice and dice his way through the “X-Men” franchise but Jackman rides the line. This is a violent movie that should satisfy fans hungry for action but his remorse, his regret is palpable and the character is more interesting for it.
There are echoes of other comic book tropes in “Logan.” There’s an evil Logan and an “Iron Man 3-esque” child sidekick, but it still feels like the evolution of the superhero movie. A hybrid of brains and brawn it is unafraid to call “X-Men” comic books “ice cream for bedwetters” while at the same time paying respect to one of it character cornerstones.