By Noel Vera
Directed by James Mangold
(Warning! Plot twists and ending discussed in detail.)
THE GOOD NEWS: James Mangold strikes gold, parlaying the success of his previous superhero production The Wolverine to direct a sequel but on his terms — low-key, character-driven, suffused with an inconsolable melancholy that I suppose is his hallmark.
The results are fairly impressive: Logan looks unlike any other X-Men or Marvel movie out there. Somber palette colors the continuously unreeling background, with emphasis on urban decay (shot mostly in New Orleans) and rural desolation (shot in New Mexico), the countryside or big city littered with rusted sheet metal cracked concrete tangled barbed wire sandblasted rock. Digital effects are kept to a minimum, used mainly to embellish action sequences; the real stars are the forlorn landscapes and abandoned small towns of America, the equally forlorn abandoned landscape of Australian actor Hugh Jackman’s cragged face.
Logan is old — well he’s always been old but here he (as played by Jackman) looks, acts, and sounds old. He drinks too much; his speed and strength have faded (waking up in the back seat of a for-rent limo — his sole means of livelihood — to an attempted hubcap heist in progress he can barely see through the boozy haze, much less fight effectively in it). He’s not healing as fast, his body not responding as fast, and, perhaps the single wittiest image in the movie is of Logan’s claws sliding out save one recalcitrant blade, which emerges only halfway (talk about performance issues).
There’s a plot and sadly we come to realize that said plot — standard comic-book fare about mutants (kids this time) being pursued and persecuted — will soon seize control when what we really really want is for the picture to stay with this Logan: with the staggering drunk hoisting Aeneas-like to his back the crushing deadweight of a broken-down bald old man (Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier) and the enigmatic heft of a mute girl (Dafne Keen as Laura).
If you watch movies at all this will be familiar material — Mangold takes his cue from Mark Millar’s basic premise (Wolverine as old man), jettisons the sillier superhero stuff, then jerry-rigs the story outline of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men to serve as narrative engine. He borrows components from several other films — Shane is explicitly alluded to, and it’s possible to see genetic traces of everything from Paper Moon to A Fistful of Dollars.
The picture footnotes those films; it doesn’t rise to their level. We don’t quite get the breathtaking sinuousness of Alfonso Cuaron’s long takes (which, to be fair, don’t connect with anything in the story, just thoroughly immerses us in the filmmaker’s [by way of PD James] dystopian nightmare). We don’t get Sergio Leone’s outsized fabulism, or George Stevens’s gravid grandeur — the vast Wyoming grasslands surrounding his human figures with an overwhelming sense of monumentality. Mangold knows his movie masters all right, but is alas not quite ready to join their ranks.
Actually he’s not quite ready to join the ranks of his contemporaries either. Logan does a nice job of pulling superheroes down off their pedestals (there’s a cute little scene involving the paraplegic Xavier and a toilet stall) but if you want a gnarly, thoroughly unhygienic, comic book film, James Gunn’s Super would be my high (or low) water mark. A cross between Batman and Taxi Driver, generously seasoned with enough cuss words and ultraviolence to earn a solid “R,” the film is perversely, hilariously sensual, an insightful (and startlingly literal) peek into the mind of a man willing to pull on a mask and call himself a superhero.
And while Shane is an established classic, I submit that Paul W.S. Anderson’s Soldier is actually an improvement on Stevens. The film — about a former sergeant defending an adopted village from his super-powered comrades — amps up the fight sequences while dehydrating the performances to the point of robotic monotone, so that Alan Ladd’s already limited acting range is distilled so many decades later into Kurt Russell’s slyly menacing throat growl. Jackman and Stewart, who chomp relentlessly on the surrounding scenery, could use some of that dryness.
Peter Bogdanovich’s delicately wrought yet thoroughly unsentimental Paper Moon shows up this movie to be the thin stuff it really is. Watching Moze (Ryan O’Neal) and Addie (real-life daughter Tatum) you can believe that they have come to know each other, can function as one on an intricate con, sometimes bicker like an old married couple. With Logan and Laura all you get are the highlights: they meet, they clash, they kill all attackers and — when someone is dying — they weep and cry out “Daddy!” This is some mighty morphin tearjerking we’re seeing here; delicate unsentimentality is not on the menu.
Stephanie Zacharek notes that Logan channels Children of Men which channels my favorite Ingmar Bergman film, Shame. I’d say she’s got a point — dystopian cinema has rarely felt grimmer — but that’s only half of Mangold’s scenario. The cornier half — the young innocent who redeems the old degenerate — is a far older device, goes back as far as, oh, maybe George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Eliot at least knew how to write, and wove her thread of redeeming love against a backdrop of precisely sketched social and historical context. Logan takes the opportunistic step of referencing illegal immigration (Laura speaks Spanish and is at one point cared for by a Latina nurse; scenes of mutants raised in holding cells recall ICE prisons and deported DREAMer children), racism (a black family is harassed Klu Klux Klan style, down to vigilantes on trucks bearing guns), even driverless trucks (dangerous, unforgiving) — and none of it feels integrated into the narrative, like a carny ride that turns and bumps through doors, one horror revealed after another without any real attempt to link anything together.
Logan isn’t actually bad, or entirely unmoving; It just feels a tad too gimmicky (dropping the F bomb like a kid who’s puffed his first joint), and ultimately too timid (the ending involves a superpowered (if dramatically uninteresting) foe, when what we really want to know is if this state-of-the-art mutant can take down her obsolescent father). It’s Mangold making a quantum leap in daring and expressiveness, wielding the resources of a major Hollywood studio to take a full bold step forward — the artistic equivalent of 17 entire inches.
MTRCB Rating: R-16