By Glenn Lovell
Of Professor Charles Xavier’s collection of oddities, James “Logan” Howlett, aka Wolverine, was always the odd mutant out, a misfit among misfits at war more with himself than the latest archenemy bent on world domination. Somehow always wreaking more harm than good, the rich kid-turned-cage fighter with the unruly muttonchops and switchblade claws harbored a self-image that hovered somewhere between the Dark Knight in exile and a banana slug.
It stands to reason, then, that when the folks at Marvel decided on a more naturalistic, warts-and-all story they would turn to the long-suffering Wolverine. Titled simply “Logan” and starring Hugh Jackman in what’s being billed as the third and final stand-alone Wolverine, the new saga bids a clamorous, anything-but-sentimental adieu to the brooding superhero, here very much showing his (almost 200) years as he battles Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), the evil genius behind — what else? — another indestructible mutant army.
The film’s piece de resistance? No surprise here — Wolverine pitted against himself, or rather a genetically engineered doppelgänger. They trade blows with a raw ferocity that bespeaks years of festering guilt. (Offing your father will do that to you, just ask Luke Skywalker.)
We open in a dystopian 2029, on the Texas-Mexico border. Wolverine and albino sidekick Caliban (Stephen Merchant) are tending a nearly infirm Xavier (Patrick Stewart) whose wall-quaking seizures are becoming more frequent. The hirsute one, now a limo driver, is slowly being poisoned by his own adamantium-enforced skeleton. “On the inside, you’re sick — I can smell it,” Caliban tells him.
Yes, the years of abuse, much of it self-inflicted, have taken their toll: he’s now a tattered, bloodied wreck of a man, let alone superhero. Worse, he has lost the call. A cry for help from an hysterical mother brings a contemptuous “Get away from me!”
Turns out the kid in distress, an 11-year-old named Laura (Dafne Keen), can fend for herself, thank you very much. In fact, her “gifts” mirror those of Wolverine. “Who are you?” he asks. “You know who she is, Logan,” replies Xavier, more than alluding to the fact that this junior mutant (X-23) shares Logan’s DNA.
Before “Logan” settles down as a cross between “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” and the classic Western “Shane” (strategically glimpsed on television), it’s a pretty joyless slog, one over-the-top CG-enhanced battle after another. But just around the time we were ready to bolt in frustration, director James Mangold (“Walk the Line,” “The Wolverine”) stows the indiscriminate mayhem and concentrates more on Logan’s 11th-hour redemption, which begins with a family in need of a wandering gun-for-hire a la the homesteaders in “Shane” and incorporates a new generation of mutant children racing for Eden, North Dakota, and the Canadian border.
And as all this is going on Logan and Laura begin to bond as Christ-figure and clone.
For diehard fans this subversive, one-off addition to the X-Men franchise will probably be a shock to the system, a surprise shower of ice water. This installment forgoes super deeds in favor of a feet-of-clay sacrifice. It’s gritty, profane and violent, easily earning its R rating. It also allows for more serious turns by Jackson and Stewart, who, at this juncture, seem more than ready to move on.
However, the real reason to invest in this overlong, more allegorical deconstruction is the feisty Dafne Keen, cast as Laura. As played by this Spanish find, the initially mute wolvie jr. proves a chip off the old block, a willful tyke who, when cornered, goes full feral. It’s an alarming transformation for one so young, but further assurance that the new iteration of mutants will not lack for intensity or street-smarts.
LOGAN ✮✮1/2 With Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant. Directed by James Mangold; scripted by Mangold, Scott Frank, Michael Green. 137 min. Rated R (for liberal use of f-bomb, more graphic than usual comic-book violence)