Is this the last of Wolverine?

Directed by James Mangold
Written by Mangold, Scott Frank and Michael Green
137 minutes, rated MA 15+
3.5 stars

With Logan, Hugh Jackman hangs up his blades. After playing the superhero Wolverine for 17 years, Jackman has said this is his last performance as the mutant with the stay-sharp knuckles – unless the rumours of a film featuring Wolverine and Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool character come true.

Logan is the tenth film in the X-Men series and Jackman has been in nine of them, since 2000. That first X-movie was his first Hollywood film. Wolverine established his fame, made him rich and turned him into the biggest slice of Aussie beefcake since Rod Taylor, and the only current one not named Hemsworth. Wolfie, aka Logan, was Australia’s first big superhero, if we assume that Mad Max is not of the same classification and ignore for a moment that Wolverine is actually Canadian.

Jackman’s success may have helped other Australian actors get through the studio gates, but for any actor of ambition, that much time with the same character is limiting. Films like Prisoners showed he has a broader range than that called for by the Marvel Universe. At 48, he has plenty of time to pursue more dramatic work.

And in truth, Logan is a dramatic work, with more character depth and less superhero silliness than before. It’s also harsher and more violent than it would have been if Jackman had not insisted that it be made as an R-rated film (for the US). This is significant. American studios avoid R, as it reduces access to those 17 or older. In practice, since the mid-1980s, they have stuffed the PG-13 category with ‘lite’ violence, devoid of blood or consequences. The superhero movie is the main vehicle for this unrealistic violence. Whether intended or not, Jackman’s insistence on going for the R-rating means Logan is both more violent and more honest about what violence looks like – even if delivered by a man in dire need of a manicure.

Logan is now old and gnarled, in the year 2029. He drives a limo around the border town of El Paso, and drinks to blunt the pain of decades of fighting. Across the Mexican border, in a disused factory, he looks after Professor X, aka Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the founder of the X-Men and a world-class grump, with the help of Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino tracker mutant. The professor needs constant medication to control his telepath tantrums, which are immensely destructive.

In his second X-Men film, James Mangold (The Wolverine) gives us a new western. Logan must protect a little girl, Laura Kinney (Dafne Keen), who has escaped from the Transigen facility run by evil surgeon Zander Rice (Richard E Grant), in Mexico City. The girl has a lot in common with Logan, as we see in their first pitched battle against Rice’s gang of big ugly henchmen. Logan bundles the kid and the old man into the limo and hurtles across the border. If they can reach Montana, there is a chance of safety.

Except that Logan hates guns and they use cars instead of horses, it could be any number of westerns, but Mangold makes his homage specific. He shows us clips from Shane (1953). The little mutant girl sees that Logan is like Alan Ladd, the gunfighter making a last stand. Mangold hammers the metaphor too hard, but the bond between killer child and killer adult gives the film some heart. The rest is speed, action and violence – and I do mean violence. Heads off, arms off, blades through skulls etcetera. That much of it is done by the girl doesn’t make it any easier to stomach. And it makes the Australian MA 15+ rating look odd.

Jackman’s performance is likeably physical, with Logan on the verge of dying throughout. He takes a ton of punishment. Patrick Stewart has said this will be his last go-round as well, so it’s a fitting vehicle for both. Given that the superhero movie is starting to wind down, it’s timely to go now, before it all gets more dumb and desperate.