In 2029, Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is now an old soak whose mutant abilities are in decline and who makes a living as a chauffeur, boozing to ease the pain and keeping a low profile in a desert hideout alongside his even older friend Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). But trouble finds him in the form of a mutant-hunting mercenary squad searching for a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) with a very familiar power-set...
When asked what his cinematic influences were for the latest — and supposedly final — Wolverine stand-alone movie, director James Mangold reeled off an impressive and enticing list that included none-more-classic Western Shane, indie-hit heart-warmer Little Miss Sunshine and Darren Aronofsky's bruising character piece The Wrestler. Well, he wasn't lying. In fact, Logan owes these three films more than it does the Mark Millar-penned comic series Old Man Logan, of which this is the loosest of adaptations.
The overall mood is sombre and elegiac, much like the 1953 Alan Ladd movie; Mangold (co-writing with Scott Frank and Michael Green) even has one character repeat Shane's "there's no livin' with a killin''" speech verbatim to true tear-jerking effect. Logan himself, meanwhile, echoes Mickey Rourke's lumpen, over-the-hill show-fighter in The Wrestler, being a shadow of his former perfect-killing-machine self. He still regenerates, but more slowly and painfully, every wound leaving a scar. He's slower and clumsier, limping and lurching, and even his claws don't 'snikt' neatly like they used to; one's got a bit lazy and started to stick.
Pursued by the kind of shifty, shadowy military-scientific organisation that would make William Stryker proud, ol' Logan hits the tarmac (in true Little Miss Sunshine style) with a mute mutant girl named Laura and a cranky old geezer... Namely Professor Charles Xavier, played with alternating tenderness and profane gusto by Stewart, who gives his finest turn yet in the role, as Charles battles dementia with pharmaceuticals. A necessity, given, as Boyd Holbrook's snide cyborg merc puts it, his brain "is classified as a weapon of mass destruction now".
Logan lets berserker-rage Wolvie properly loose at last.
Smartly U-turning from the X-films' latter tendency to ramp up the world-threat via increasingly incomprehensible CGI, Mangold keeps things grounded and intimate. For the first time, the tension between Logan's animalistic killer instinct and his struggle to just be a good, decent human being is explored in depth and at length. It feels less like a sprinkle of seasoning on the action-adventure stew than the true meat of the drama, and is most flavoursome in Logan's interactions, both compassionate and combative, with the ailing Xavier and the pint-sized powder keg that is Laura. One is the croaking voice of his conscience, the other his chance to shape the future for the better. The film is never emotionally stronger than when this trio shares a scene.
Taking its cue from Deadpool's gutsy carnage, Logan also lets berserker-rage Wolvie properly loose at last. He Fs, he blinds, he punctures baddies' brains and lacerates their limbs, painting the sand, walls and trees black with blood. Allowed to be more adult, it is without a doubt the best solo Wolverine yet; if Jackman truly did accept a pay-cut to allow for the higher certification, then that is his payback.
Although, even without the commercial pressure and artistic compromise that ultimately marred the last two Wolverines, Logan shares a few of their weaknesses. The urge to serve up a stakes-raising big bad results in an unsatisfying reveal that externalises and personifies Logan's beneath-the-surface turmoil in an obvious and hoary way. And while sparing us the samurai-robot nonsense of The Wolverine (thank God), the final confrontation is a little unfocused in comparison with the taut set-pieces that come earlier in the film.
Still, if this truly is Jackman's last run as Logan, then it's a worthy swansong that allows him to go out on a high. A reminder that, when it comes to playing a properly magnetic anti-hero with a gruff ’70s-cinema exterior and a dark reservoir of inner depth, Jackman really is the best at what he does.
The best Wolverine movie yet: grown-up, ballsy, character-driven and grounded. It feels right that it should be the last one, but it also feels a bit of a shame.