Though not the most consistently great director, James Mangold has proven, with Walk the Line and 3:10 to Yuma, that he has the ability to craft genuinely excellent films, which is part of why his lacklustre 2013 X-Men effort, The Wolverine, was so disappointing. With the release of Logan, though, it becomes clear that The Wolverine was clearly just Mangold’s dry run at the character, and clearly one hampered by studio restrictions. Now, with an allowance to cut loose with a 15 age rating and a standalone, intimate, introspective story, he’s delivered one of the finest comic book movies yet, and far and away the best entry in Fox’s X-Men universe.
Bearing more in common with the westerns of old (particularly George Stevens’ 1953 piece Shane) than your typical superhero film, Logan takes place in 2029 on the desolate US-Mexico border. With a few exceptions, mutant-kind has been wiped out and Logan (Hugh Jackman) is now a long way from being The Wolverine, eking out a living as a limousine driver for wealthy morons and caring for the decrepit Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Aided by makeshift nurse Caliban (Stephen Merchant showing off a previously unseen range and depth), an albino mutant with the ability to track others of his kind, Logan just wants to make enough money to buy a boat where the three of them can live in peace.
In his old age, Xavier’s brain is failing him, and though his being 90 makes this fact unsurprising, his immense telepathic abilities combined with dementia make him a living WMD. Getting him offshore seems to be Logan’s only option, and we see just why in a couple of teeth-grittingly intense sequences when Xavier’s seizures threaten to bring about brain death to masses of people. The tricks used by Mangold to show the power level of these seizures are simple but very effective, and Stewart is fantastic at relaying the stress and panic that the seizures induce in Charles.
So, it’s disarming when the baddies, known as the Reavers and led by robotically-enhanced and weaselly Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), turn up to the abandoned steel mill that the mutant trio call their home and largely ignore ‘the most dangerous brain in the world’. Instead, they’re looking for a young mutant girl named Laura, better known to comics readers as X-23 (Dafne Keen). Logan has been given an advance payment of $20,000 to transport Laura to a safe zone over the Canadian border, and though he’s initially reluctant, the barbarity of the Reavers forces his hand. He has to be a hero one last time, whether he likes it or not.
Logan’s central internal conflict drives the whole film – he no longer has the capacity to believe in heroism, particularly his own and, as Xavier articulates, his past is so filled with darkness that he doesn’t even deserve to be heroic any more, let alone happy. As well as being a genetically engineered killing machine, Laura proves dangerous in that she dares Logan to have hope again, and those brief snatches of happiness, which are often cut short all too soon, make for genuinely affecting viewing.
It helps immensely that Jackman and Stewart are at the top of their game; Jackman has never been better than he is here, finally allowed to explore the inner workings of a character that he’s been making his own for 17 years. A more more sombre tone also lets Mangold fully utilise Stewart, whose immense talents go without saying at this point. Amazingly, both of them are matched every step of the way by newcomer Keen. Her performance is absurdly committed and at points wrenchingly sad. Largely non-verbal, she still makes an impression that is unlikely to leave you for a long time, and pretty much guarantees future stardom for the young actress.
Tonally, Logan earns its higher age rating in a way that Deadpool only managed with blood and swearing, though there’s still a surfeit of both to be found here. Xavier turns the air blue, dropping F-bombs with the power and aplomb that only a classically trained thespian can, while Logan and Laura splatter the ground with as much red as possible. With superpowers that consist of knife hands and taking hideous amounts of punishment, Wolverine has always felt neutered by 12a age ratings, but in Logan we see him disembowel and dismember a carjacking gang within the first 4 minutes.
It’s a bold statement of intent from Mangold, and the film only gets more mercilessly brutal from there, but this is not just violence for violence’s sake. Bloodletting has far-reaching and tragic consequences – the psychological toll of battle almost never gets this sort of attention in a blockbuster. This lack of censorship also makes for better choreographed action scenes. Without the need to cut away from the goriest moments, Logan brings to mind John Wick during its fight sequences, even if it is more CG-enhanced than those excellent Keanu Reeves vehicles.
Much has been made of Logan’s finality, the end of an era (Jackman’s stint as Wolverine has seen two Supermans, two Batmans, and three Spidermans). While the Wolverine character never became a part of my life like, say, the kids from Harry Potter, the clear love that everyone involved in this film has for the man formerly known as James Howlett means that Logan is more moving than any superhero film has the right to be. Smart, vicious, and sincere, it leaves the rest of 2017’s blockbusters with a lot to live up to.