Forget Batman vs. Superman or Captain America vs. Iron Man. In James Mangold’s moving tribute to X-Men’s Wolverine, “Logan,” it’s all Logan vs. Logan. He strips away the spandex, the posse and the chaos, distilling the story down to the essence of the man, Logan, also known as Wolverine, also known as James Howlett. What’s left is the agony and the ecstasy of mutanthood, which star Hugh Jackman expresses as physical and mental torture. Logan’s greatest opponent is, and always has been, himself.
In this near-distant future of 2029, Logan shuns his mutant abilities. He drives a limo, racked with a hacking cough and a craving for liquor. He seems to be disintegrating before our eyes; he’s grizzled and mangy and those adamantium claws don’t unfurl like they used to. He mostly uses them for fending off hubcap bandits anyway. He toils alongside Caliban (Stephen Merchant) at a secretive Mexican camp to care for Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whom they’re keeping drugged up to keep his apocalyptic seizures at bay. It’s not much of a life, or a legacy.
But this film almost isn’t just about Logan, it’s also about Laura, a character who first began popping up in comic books in 2004. Played by newcomer Dafne Keen in her first film role, Laura boasts similar talents and characteristics to Logan, and the two share a feral rage when provoked. She’s smuggled out of a Mexican genetic engineering facility, and Logan’s been entrusted with delivering her to safety in North Dakota. And so begins a long, strange, dark and violent trip for Logan, Laura and Charles.
Mangold pulls no razor-sharp punches in “Logan” – the film is horrifyingly, grotesquely violent, as Logan and Laura fight to evade the clutches of bounty hunter Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), who wants to contain mutants and develop their bodies into weapons. In Laura, Logan finds a part of himself worth fighting for, and do they ever, particularly in one brilliant sequence paying homage to “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Jackman, a gifted physical actor, demonstrates tremendous range and gives the performance of his life as the deteriorating Logan. It’s a big performance, raw and compelling as hell, and his finest, most emotional work. It’s also refreshing to see an unleashed Stewart. And Keen is a wonder, a tremendous discovery. Step aside, Eleven, there’s a new tough girl in town.
About halfway through “Logan,” Mangold, who wrote the script with Scott Frank and Michael Green, pulls the rug out from under us, with a shockingly dark twist. This is after we’ve become accustomed to the sight of a tiny girl ferociously slice and dice a baker’s dozen of assassins, but it’s still an emotional bomb blast. It’s manipulative, but after that, we know all bets are off. No one is safe in “Logan.”
There are repeated references to the classic Western “Shane,” about a good gunfighter protecting the vulnerable. It’s an apt comparison, if heavy-handed, but damn if it isn’t effective, employing poignant words from the movie to do the impossible: wring tears.
Mangold turns the lens inward in the introspective “Logan,” subjecting this character and his legacy to an onscreen vivisection. The themes of otherness and corporate exploitation could have been pushed further for more impact. But Mangold never strays from Jackman, who is explosive and mesmerizing in the role he made iconic.
Rated: R for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity. Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen. Director: James Mangold. Running time: 137 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema, Terrace Drive-In.