Just look at that poster, the best teaser to a blockbuster in many a year, its charcoal impression of an animalistic figure capturing his soul-sucked blackness, his barely-there inhumanity, and his ragged, bestial fury all in one. It is at once a fascinatingly direct impression of a figure more than human and an ambiguous ode to Japanese watercolor lightness keeled-over into dreary depression. It is ominous yet melancholy, boxed-off and contained to display its central figure torn between life crushing him down and his claws almost bursting off the edge, ready to tear that life a new one even as it comes down harder on him. And best of all, the poster lives, like the figure it depicts, to showcase its own grit and grain at the expense of clean clinicality.
It also breeds high hopes. And it’s probably not a surprise the film doesn’t quite meet them, but it gives it a game try. James Mangold is, if nothing else, a damn-fine craftsman, and he brings this sensibility to The Wolverine almost full-force. It’s not a great film, per-se, but it’s shocking in its goodness, and more importantly, shockingly restrained in the way it is good. For, until the end, it isn’t really interested in being a “superhero” movie at all. Rather, it’s a brawny, grungy ’70s-hued style-as-substance character-action thriller that just happens to star a never-better Hugh Jackman as everyone’s favorite snarky, self-hating superhero. It feels “adult” in a way few superhero movies could be if they wanted to, and it doesn’t make the mistake of hiring gloomy moroseness when it means to acquire character, personality, and nuance. If it’s not perfect, the edges are made up for by the film’s pure impact, and that’s an increasing rarity indeed.
Mangold proves he has a flair for action (a bullet train sequence is deliriously unhinged), but the film is at its best when the grimy, earthen sensibility he brings to the fleshy action maintains through the quiet bits. A concussive early prologue set during the Hiroshima bombing is decidedly mournful and nerve-wracking, but even better is a largely wordless sequence set in the wilds of Canada that focuses on the little, lived-in details of Logan’s world at the expense of narrative momentum.
Even when the story jumps into high-gear, Mangold brings weight and consequence to the affair by focusing not only on the impact of the physical blows but the long-term consequences of living a lonely, unending life as the world passes you by. It’s not stylistically inventive in any meaningful sense, but the direction is sharp throughout. Hugh Jackman, meanwhile, plums his long-worn character here in ways heretofore unseen. It’s not great acting, but it’s a nicely modulated performance that captures the stoic, mythic world-weariness of the character, tired frustration fighting with caustic humanism to a standstill.
The film isn’t perfect; it gets a serious case of the superheros toward the end when it remembers it was released into theaters in July and we get a big huge mess of a final act, and there’s one particular villain that the film puts an inordinate amount of energy into despite never figuring out what to do with her other than make her a glorified plot device (she’s forced through an awe-inspiringly inept expository late film monologue that’s mind-blowingly goofy). Of course, the treatment of the late-film central villain is even worse, but it more closely resembles “loopy feverishness” than “asinine bloatedness”, so that’s not a complete loss. It could be entertaining in a depraved, over-the-top way, but it is a completely misjudged climax for the particular film it happens to have been placed in, and it comes off all the worse for it.
But the first 90 minutes are real keepers, each and every one. What’s more, The Wolverine actually posits something of a third way for superhero movies, neither grandiose nihilism nor aloof comicality. Instead, we have a meaty, hard-edged, corrosive, even angry idea of a film that unfortunately doesn’t completely fill out its outer-shell. For a superhero movie in 2013 – the genre lost to itself and generally entering the death throes of tepid mediocrity – that’s not inconsiderable.
Pain & Gain
There are many ways to begin discussing Pain & Gain, but I will choose to start (appropriately for a Bay film) with a bang by showcasing its best feature: Pain & Gain bears the distinction of being, until this point, the best film work by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, abetted heartily by Bay’s unapologetic willingness to let him test the limits of his recent interest in reinventing himself as a weird and loopy farcical player wholly distant from his stint with more conventional, stoic action films. The guy has screen presence, and here he shows he can go unhinged and convey an offbeat sort of nuance with real energy and zest. He’s really inhabiting a character here, if a character who is defined by having no earthly idea in the world what he is doing (for reference, he also appeared in the surprisingly strong Furious 6 this year, and was the best thing in the tepid GI Joe: Retaliation, along with fellow weirdly-successful-comic-actor Channing Tatum and one astounding action sequence that works as a wonderful bit of abstracted broad colors and shapes in motion). Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie commit completely to their too-hot-in-the-sun characters too, totally selling this story of three wet-matches surrounded by Miami fire and trying to alight themselves to no avail in a get rich quick scheme. But when Johnson is on screen, they fade away.
The other thing about Pain & Gain: it’s fun, quite a bit fun, and then it stops being fun. When it works, it’s a deliciously caustic, over-the-top bit of angry self-destruction hopped up on all manner of adrenaline and cocaine. For fleeting moments it approaches true greatness in this brawny, fist-first kind of way. Everything is proudly surface-level, the script has at least its fair share of dynamite lines, the chaotic chemistry between the leads is impeccable in an almost screwball comedy kind of way, and the colors really pop all around the seems. It’s a candy-coated critique of candy, sure, but that sort of cognitive dissonance is acceptable in short doses if it’s well played.
Bay goes for the throat of the American Dream and everything his own films, with their excess-and-patriotism meatheadedness, stand for (there’s a sense the three main characters would love Bay’s films, and Bay treats them with contempt and clearly revels in beating the stuffing out of them from beginning to end). He has a time punching himself in the gut with untamed energy, mocking these three losers and their self-satisfied, smug, all-American complete inability to admit failure (the get rich quick scheme that centers the film is astoundingly idiotic). For a while, we’re taking the ride with him and maybe even giving his total and complete lack of discipline on display a pass. For a while, that is.
Which brings us to “and then it stops”. When the film doesn’t work, it is because of two things, both of them unsurprisingly the limits of Michael Bay’s ability to distance himself from himself. First of all, Bay doesn’t know the meaning of “short doses”. Simply put, the film is excruciatingly, absurdly long for what it is; an energetic, twitchy story like this can only really work when cut to the bone, and Bay spends too much time meandering about different pathways that go nowhere (curiously, however, the film’s best scenes all exclusively deal with something hilariously and unnaturally overextended and harped upon for endless minutes in a way that still somehow captures the raw, brutal idiocy of these characters and their inability to comprehend or decide on anything). The effect is something that works within scenes but not necessarily from scene-to-scene, and it grows very weary very quickly.
The bigger reason why the film ultimately can’t earn the good-will of its intent: it just can’t help but over-extend itself tonally. You see, Pain & Gain is snarky and caustically cynical, and then it is brutally sadistic, and this film goes back and forth between the two (sometimes within the span of one scene no less) with no real sense of what it’s doing. This helps give the whole thing a certain madcap energy (again, twitchy seems apt), but too much is still too much. And Bay doing “too much” here only seems like him self-critiquing his own work about half the time; the other half it just seems like he’s doing Michael Bay, and that gets fairly tiring over the long haul. Put simply, watching Michael Bay make fun of himself is fun, but he makes fun of himself in a distinctly “Michael Bay” way, by going wildly over-the-top. It’s kind of wonderful that Pain & Gain exists at all. The problem is that Michael Bay is plainly aware that it’s kind of wonderful, and he rubs our faces in it. And Michael Bay having fun is no fun at all.
The Riddick series has had its ups and downs, but everything is captured in their titles. Pitch Black, the best of the three films, has a calling card to match: ominous, evocative, and drearily ambiguous. The Chronicles of Riddick is a druggy, self-important mess whose unearned title captures that film’s complete and utter disregard for humility and narrative structure, as well as its strange and deeply misguided attempt at establishing the franchise as a sort of grand space opera. And Riddick is the tersest, most direct, bluntest, most obvious, and generally simplest of the three, as well as the least fascinating. Considering how the first sequel was only fascinating insofar as its wrong-headed incompetency, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to scale back and go for something more self-contained and not remotely deep. Honestly, it is most certainly a good thing. If this film doesn’t attain the B-movie heights of Pitch Black, it’s pretty decent as a throwaway in its own right.
In fact, Riddick is shocking for how low-key it is. The story, as we have it, has Riddick (still Vin Diesel, barely aged after all these years, in a role perfectly fitted to his essential lack of acting talent) trapped on an alien planet when two groups of mercenaries come his way. They scuffle, and eventually a worse threat comes along. The film has a sort of modern efficiency and streamlined inhumanity that hits the spot in this day-and-age of gluttonous blockbuster trudgery. If it doesn’t do much, it does it well. And that’s often enough, especially during the terrific first third that has Riddick struggle against the nihilist nightmare of the planet itself. In a sequence all about physical mise-en-scene and visual storytelling, a short film that almost approaches non-narrative in its habit of grasping onto little moments and details at the expense of momentum, we’re given almost no dialogue and yet learn far more about Riddick’s character through fleshy action then we ever could through discussion. For an action film, it’s a shockingly radical opening, even as it is, unquestionably, the tensest and exciting sequence in the film.
Things take a turn for the tepid once other humans come into play, but it’s all generally entertaining and fun. Unfortunately, the largely-interior second act just can’t match the sun-scorched cinematography of the opening half-hour, but things take a turn for the better as the film hurtles toward its conclusion and the malaised yellows are traded in for Gothic grays and blacks. The characters are essentially fodder, but enough of them are watchable in the way of broadly written types (the film also has the good taste to know its better side and focus on its main man anyway). It’s passable, forgettable fun, a piece of workmanlike craftsmanship that occasionally circles around artistic vision. That’s not exactly great filmmaking, but it’s probably the best version of a 2013 film about space marines and an almost-50 year old Vin Diesel that could have been made. Sometimes mediocrity deserves a toast for being anything better than joyless. That’s a shame, but a film critic has to adapt.