And the winner is ... Jackman’s
We’ve just had the Oscars, with Bonnie and Clyde innocent of the crime for once, but here’s an early call for next year: Logan, the stunning third — and perhaps final — instalment in the Wolverine movies that have made Australia’s Hugh Jackman a Hollywood star (and helped him keep fit).
It wouldn’t be as great an upset as Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty announcing the wrong Oscar winner this week, but even so Logan in contention would be a mutant outbreak in the Academy Awards gene line, as no film based on a comic book has ever been nominated for best picture.
Christopher Nolan’s brooding Batman movie The Dark Knight (2008) perhaps went closest in recent times, with eight Oscar nominations and a posthumous best supporting actor win for Heath Ledger as The Joker.
But it wasn’t nominated for best film or best director, despite being acclaimed by critics and taking $US2 billion at the box office.
Logan is the 10th film in the X-Men series, which is part of the Marvel comic book empire. The debut was X-Men (2000), directed by Bryan Singer, who wanted Russell Crowe for Wolverine. But the role went, eventually, to the unknown actor friend Crowe recommended.
Jackman’s previous film was the Queensland-shot Paperback Hero, about a truck driver who writes a novel. It made about $1 million; X-Men made almost 300 times that.
Jackman signed up for two Wolverine movies. He’s now been the character, with his bulging biceps, lethal adamantium claws and troubled, pissed-off, compassionate mind, for 17 years.
Logan is Wolverine’s common name, though his real one is James Howlett. This film is the third of the X-Men series in which he takes the lead, following X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) and The Wolverine (2013).
From such an uncertain beginning came a character Jackman cares about. This film, MA15+ here, is rated R is the US (for the swearing and violence), which was only made possible by Jackman taking a pay cut.
He wanted to make the film he and director and co-screenwriter James Mangold envisaged, something almost the opposite of a superhero thriller. To do so with studio approval they had to bring down the budget because R-rated films don’t make as much at the box office.
The title is simple and brilliant. This is a Wolverine we have not seen before. This is Logan, a fiftysomething man with a battered black suit, a limp, bloodshot eyes, scruffy beard, lips fond of the f-word and the neck of a whisky bottle. He scrapes a living as a limo driver along the destitute US-Mexico border.
The opening scene tells us this, while also reminding us of what came before. Logan staggers towards a gang of men who are messing with his limo. “Oh f..k, stealing wheels,’’ he says, tired and exasperated. “Shit, shit.’’
Logan takes on the men. The claws come out. He wins, but he takes a beating that wouldn’t have been thinkable before. “Jesus, Wolverine,’’ an antagonist says to him later, “seeing you like this just breaks my damn heart.”
The landscape, the characters, the action are not of the superhero world. We may be in the future, but it’s a dystopian one. This is a charac- ter-driven neo-western. There are deliberate references to this — Logan watching the 1953 western Shane on TV; a nod to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven — but the comparisons that spring to my mind are John Hillcoat’s The Road and George Miller’s Mad Max films.
The year is 2029 and, we learn, it’s been 25 years since a mutant was born. Ordinary folk think of them the same way they think of tigers: extinct. It seems the only ones left are Wolverine, who is caring for an infirm Professor X (Patrick Stewart, in his best performance yet in the role), with the help of the albino Caliban (Stephen Merchant).
The three mutants are living in an isolated, ramshackle fortress of sorts. It needs to be well barricaded to keep strangers out, and to keep Professor X, former leader of the X-Men, in. The telepath with the world’s most dangerous brain is having seizures that render him — and anyone nearby — almost lifeless. He needs psychotropic drugs, which Wolverine must source.
It’s clear Wolverine is not recovering from wounds as quickly as he used to. His regeneration powers are shallower and his lifelong struggle between mutancy and humanity is deeper. He looks like a man who could die.
There is humour amid the despair. The exchanges between Wolverine and Professor X are arch. It’s a grumpy, hurting middle-aged man looking after an irascible, wheelchair- bound nonagenarian. “I always know who you are,’’ Professor X says when Wolverine suggests he’s losing his mind. “It’s just that sometimes I don’t recognise you.’’ He is not alone there.
Indeed, both of them are just about ex-Xs. The funniest moment is when Wolverine dons a pair of reading glasses, label still attached. The scene where Professor X needs the bathroom is also droll, as is Wolverine’s Fawlty Towers reaction to his car.
This desperate life changes — for the worse — with the appearance of an 11- or 12-year-old girl named Laura. She is silent but looks not scared but brave. When she and Wolverine run into some bad dudes we soon find out why: she has claws just like him, and knows how to use them. (The violence is fairly full-on: blades thrust into faces and so on.)
And so the Shane- like story begins. Wolverine must protect this girl, who may have his genes, from the military-scientific complex that created her, Transigen. It seems Transigen was working on weaponised mutants but abandoned the plan and decided to kill off the young prototypes. Some of them escaped and are now pursued by the corporation’s head of security (Boyd Holbrook), scientific chief (Richard E. Grant) and lots of heavily armed troops.
Laura is played by 11-year-old English-Spanish actress Dafne Keen and she is mesmerising. From the first moment you have no doubt she is exactly what she is, a mutant who can kill a man with a flick of the wrist, but she is also a little girl. I’d have her down for a best supporting actress nomination, alongside Stewart for best supporting actor.
Jackman would be there too, if I was voting. He is full of the loss of a man who is in a world that was never made for him. The extended scene between Wolverine and Laura, like a dad and daughter stewing in the front seat of a car, is brilliant. He has suggested this is his last turn as Wolverine. If so, he leaves at his peak as an actor.
Mangold made The Wolverine but he is best known for the Johnny-June Cash biopic Walk the Line, which won an Oscar. His western credentials were well established with the fine 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, with Crowe and Christian Bale.
In Logan, he and cinematographer John Mathieson ( Gladiator) bring an intensity to every scene until the remarkable conclusion. I looked in my note book to see what I scribbled down in the cinema: THE ENDING IS HUGE.
Well, it is, and it will have fans of the X-Men series asking each other a lot of questions when the lights come up.
Logan is a fine example of the superhero film where fantasy is tame and reality is wild.
“You know they are all bullshit,” Wolverine barks after glancing through an X-Men comic (which are cleverly introduced into the story). “In the real world people die.”
Patrick Stewart, above left, Hugh Jackman and Dafne Keen, left, in scenes from Logan