“Logan” Leverages its Hard-R Rating, Stellar Performances, and Engaging Action To Deliver an Outstanding Wolverine Send-Off

Logan, James Mangold’s conclusion to the Wolverine franchise, dispenses with a safe approach to the comic book genre in favor of careful characterization, genuine emotion, and tactful storytelling.  It is an unabashed hard-R action movie bursting with violence, gore, and harsh language.  But, Mangold and company employ the R-rating towards more than blood and F-bombs (though there’s plenty of each).  By withdrawing the film from the purview of children spectators, Logan is able to tell a more patient and delicate story without compromise.  Instead of a frenetic pace that plays down to the attention span of teenagers and rabid fanpersons, the culmination of the Wolverine trilogy adopts a more practiced approach to super-hero storytelling that rewards on every level and will encourage repeat viewings.

The film boasts myriad superlatives.  Fascinating characters weave their way through the story, which breathes new life into old characters like Logan and Charles Xavier, and introduces novel ones with grace.  The cinematography conveys the dustiness of a post-apocalypse or modern Western.  The action sequences are extraordinary.  They’re carefully composed, paced brilliantly, and more reliant on stunt work than CGI.  The plot is tight and infused with thematic importance, lightly suggesting some wonderful subtext while openly championing ideas of family, obsolescence, and standing up for the downtrodden.

From the perspective of plot, Logan is fairly straightforward.  Set in 2029, the story follows an aged Logan and Charles Xavier, the only surviving X-men and some of the only mutants left.  Logan drives a limo to earn enough cash to purchase some under-the-counter medication for Charles, who is being stowed in Mexico.  Charles has descended into senility, and no longer has absolute control over his powers.  The inciting event of the story involves a Mexican nurse conscripting Logan to take a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota.  Laura is being pursued by a gang of goons belonging to the Transigen corporation, led by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook).  Logan is reticent, until he sees Laura in action and it is revealed that she was conceived in an experimental program by Transigen using Logan’s DNA.

One of the greatest strengths of Logan is these characters and their interactions/relationships.  The character of Logan is the most-portrayed of all the X-Men, but paradoxically he is developed to a fairly shallow point.  Sure, there’s a bunch of hand-waving about a mysterious past and the consequential emotional distance of Wolverine, but that is rarely developed beyond a talking point.  In Logan, we get the first mature treatment of the character, and it is fascinating.  A venerable Logan is more interesting than a bulletproof one.

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Charles Xavier is almost always portrayed in the X-Men films as the man with the answers.  There are very few moments of weakness for the character, and Charles finds his mettle pretty quickly whenever he does confront a challenge.  Usually, everyone relies on Charles for his intellect and strength of character.  Here, the dynamic is reversed; Charles is frail, dying, and has little control over his powers.  There is still a poignancy to the character though, as he struggles under the weight of his own deteriorating mind and his past, yet is still able to mentor Logan.

And then there’s Dafne Keen.

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Born in 2005, Keen portrays Laura / X-23.  Though I refuse to pun on her last name as description of her performance, it is certainly appropriate (and maybe this counts anyway).  The character is intriguing, and Keen has a kind of coiled energy about her that had me on edge from the onset.  Though the character is silent for the majority of the film, there is a meanness and a frustration about her that oozes from the performance.  It doesn’t hurt that our introduction to her combat prowess is so blunt and primal.  But later on, after she warms to Logan a little, Keen reveals a softer side to the rage and does some serious character work.  Though this is the last of the Wolverine films starring Hugh Jackson, sign me up for an X-23 trilogy starring Dafne Keen.

Most impressively, these characters all feel in danger.  The returning characters have a frailty, and a kind of survivor’s guilt at the embarrassment of being the last of the X-men.  Their mortality is front-and-center, and it isn’t at all clear that they will survive each scuffle.  Laura is a whirlwind of claws and heals just like Wolverine, but it is established very early on that due to her size she is in danger of being overpowered and captured, at which point all of her acrobatics and healing will be moot.

This vulnerability imparts the action sequences with actual stakes, a “realism” that Marvel and DC can only dream of.  For all the laudatory awe of the airport scene in Captain America:  Civil War, there is precisely zero risk that any of the characters are going to die – or even become seriously injured.  They couldn’t even talk themselves into killing off a character as minor as Rhodey, and I’m sure he’ll be perfectly fixed by the time Infinity War comes around.  The ersatz tension and punch-pulling of the MCU’s most eye-catching fight sequences are embarrassing when compared to the action we see in Logan, where the fatal consequences are unavoidable and realMost crucially, these stakes are dependent on the underlying character work done by Jackman, Stewart, and Keen, under Mangold’s direction.  Cohesion between character, story, and action is rare in the blockbuster setting, but Logan handles it with aplomb.

The action sequences are quite sparse in this film, as Mangold is unafraid to take his time and let the fighting come to the story naturally.  This is another benefit of the R-rating;  the director can attempt a slower, more patient pace to the story without fear of losing an audience of 10-year olds.  This pacing plays out in the action scenes themselves, too.  The hyper-cutting of the Bourne franchise or other modern action schlock is dispensed with in favor of lengthier takes and short camera movements.  This allows the spectator to actually identify and consider what they are watching, process it, and conclude that there is marvel in what they’re seeing.  For the most part, it is clear that the action in Logan relies more on stunts than on computers.  The CGI is still there, but it is used more to mask and enhance the practical effects than to appropriate them.  One might think of Mad Max:  Fury Road or John Wick as relevant comps – films that were comfortable with heavy stunt work, longer takes, and intelligent action sequences.  Logan is on the same level.

The film is not without issues, most of which boil down to very specific plot elements involving the villains of the story, which are a little paint-by-numbers.  As previously mentioned, the strength of the film is in the protagonists, so the weak villains don’t bother me all that much.  The film does too well with the other elements, and the villains are properly menacing.  The other minor issue involved an over-long second act where there was just a bit too much wheel-spinning.  Still, Logan is shorter than X-Men: Apocalypse, and much more worthy of your time, so the length doesn’t bother so much, especially since there are so many subtle themes at work underneath.

On the surface, Logan is a story about family and fighting to protect them from the evils of the world.  These themes are wonderfully developed and coalesce in a couple of different sequences that firmly establish Logan as something more than a pulpy comic book flick.  But, there are also more subtle ideas at play.  There’s a distinct air of obsolescence and the world leaving you behind, which both Charles and Logan struggle with throughout the story.  Both characters also share a regret over past incidents, which are often conveyed without beating you over the head with precisely what happened.  Additionally, the idea that violence and brutality weighs down on Logan is finally presented in a meaningful way; there’s so way a person could participate in such intimate barbarism and not be affected by it.  To wit:  Logan warns Laura about the danger of hurting people – even bad ones.

Subtextual themes like these pop up every now and then.  Though the film is shot in the vein of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, 2029 America is going along just fine, but there are weird details.  There are some hints that today’s xenophobia is festering, and it is also suggested that the Canadian border is closed to the US.  There are some Nudge-style social engineering concepts that relate to the disappearance of mutants, and the careful observers will see important logos and fabricated brand-names that could tie in thematically with the story.  It is for these reasons that I am confident that Logan can be mined for far more meaning than the average action flick.

Though a complete discussion of the comic book flick landscape is beyond this review, it should be noted that three of the last four films from 20th Century Fox (Logan, Deadpool, Days of Future Past) rival the two best films of the MCU (Captain America:  The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy), and completely dwarf the dregs that Warner Brothers is shitting out.  And while Marvel/Disney are doing just fine with the monies, the creativity has stymied under the weight of MOAR CARACTERS, inter-connectedness, and four-quadrant movie-making.  At this point, I’m far more interested in where Fox can take the R-rated X-Men films than I am with the hopelessly packed Infinity War two-parter.

Because, if there is one thing these three Fox films have in common, it is a perfect blending of style and substance, told with ability, care, and passion.  Whether we’re talking about the brutality of Logan, the irreverence of Deadpool, or the weirdness of Days of Future Past, each film has a unique style and something meaningful to say.  And Logan is probably the most extraordinary of them all.  It opens with a raucous bluntness and closes with one of the most tender and emotional final shots in any superhero film ever, a fitting end for the Wolverine franchise.  In between, it is two-hours of the most intriguing and rewarding action filmmaking that anyone can possibly hope for.

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