"As it relates to independent film, the sky really is falling," announced film executive Mark Gill in 2008, but it's starting to look like his aim was off. One month after Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted an "implosion" of the Hollywood industry, the moment may have arrived even sooner than they anticipated. Doom and gloom reports of studio box office duds in recent weeks suggest that the proliferation of overpriced, undercooked tentpole releases has reached another breaking point. Dispatches from Comic-Con report of a general fatigue among conventioneers faced with endless previews of the same half-baked formulas devoid of original concepts.
While frugal directors and producers working outside this playing field relish in the schadenfreude, disoriented moguls perplexed by their current situation might want to spend the weekend contemplating it in the context of Hollywood's latest -- and mercifully watchable -- product, "The Wolverine."
The latest edition to Fox's ever-expanding X-Men empire resurrects its most appealing character for another dreary solo entry in which the adamantium-riddled mutant with knives in his knuckles gets yanked away from sulking in the countryside to confront another demon from his past. Building on the brooding atmosphere capably established by Gavin Hood in 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," James Mangold delivers an efficiently brutal and straight-faced action-adventure once again showcasing Hugh Jackman's trademark scowl in the role he was born to play.
Paying respectable tribute to Western motifs and, most obviously, samurai movies, "The Wolverine" follows a thin story involving the aspirations of a rich Japanese investor whom the Wolverine, aka Logan, saved back in WWII. In awe of Logan's regenerative abilities, the dying man tracks down Logan decades later in the hopes of swiping his abilities, aided by a life-sucking evil mutant played with bland sultriness by Svetlana Khodchenkova. Logan goes on the lam with the investor's granddaughter (Tao Okamoto) and the future-seeing hired gun tasked with bringing him east (Rila Fukushima). In the midst of all this, Mangold stages a terrific high velocity showdown between Logan and an unnamed assailant on top of Japan's famed bullet train, but other than that scene and a comically abrupt burst of violence involving a high rise a little further down the line, "The Wolverine" has the sterile feel of a movie weighed down by its humorless character. We expect as much from him, but there's a sense of lethargy to the very plot of "The Wolverine" as it barrels toward an uninspired final act.
Yet in the context of so much public grousing over the current state of the business, "The Wolverine" offers a provocative analogy for Hollywood's boundless commitment to pricey undertakings. Hiding in the forest as the movie begins, still burnt by the loss of his former love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, surfacing in dream sequences), Logan is an unkillable action hero in denial about his fate. Dragged back into the field against his will, his constant frustrations over being thrust into another showdown play as though he's actively trying to evade participating in another "Wolverine" movie. But the movie gods have other plans. "Your mistake was to believe a life without end can have no meaning," he's told. "It is the only life that can." That notion persists so heavily that eventually it washes over Logan until he has no choice but to play along. "I'm a soldier," he finally declares. "I've been hiding too long." A final coda teasing the next "X-Men" movie ensures that he won't have much time to reconsider.
In "The Wolverine," Logan persists as a great idea, the happy medium between Rambo and the man with no name -- but the movie itself lacks the same complex inspiration. Looking at a large quantity of misconceived Hollywood movies, it seems as though the strength of a few promising variables early on trounce the bigger picture. Hulking monsters versus machines in "Pacific Rim," new age ghostbusters in "R.I.P.D.," speeding snails in "Turbo," a dystopian survival story in "After Earth": These are not cheap endeavors. Before executives take out their checkbooks, they need to consider whether a seemingly marketable concept actually has legs or merely the sketchy outlines of them. Otherwise, they'll face yet another summer of many Wolverines slashing their claws at interchangeable targets that will never truly fall.