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MOVIE REVIEW: 'The Wolverine' starts out strong, but loses steam

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Logan (Hugh Jackman) fights his greatest battle in "The Wolverine." (Photo: Ben Rothstein)

The Wolverine

(PG-13)

2 and a half stars out of 4

Easily the most popular of all the X-Men characters, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is also the only one that could carry a movie by himself. For the first hour of this second Wolverine “solo album,” Jackman, director James Mangold and the screenwriting team led by Oscar-winner Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) pull off the near impossible. They take a character deeply rooted in sci-fi, strip away all but the most essential elements of that genre and plop him down into an intelligent action thriller that, with one just minor tweak, could easily be a James Bond movie. Dedicated Bond fans might even go as far as to say it’s merely a thinly veiled remake of “You Only Live Twice.”

Opening with the dropping of the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in World War II, the film presents the first of several cleverly constructed dream sequences and then settles in to the present day. Melancholy and super bummed out because of being an immortal and such, Wolverine is looking a lot more like Bigfoot while living in a cave on what looks to be an Alaska mountain.

Hairy, unkempt and disheveled, Wolverine is paid a visit from Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a mutant who can see into the future, delivering a message from the soldier he saved in the war. The now-old man wants to thank Wolverine one last time before he dies and then makes him an offer anyone in their right mind would flat-out refuse. Since he is far from his “right mind,” Wolverine starts to mull it over and for a brief moment considers accepting the offer.

Through a series of events better left explained by the film, Wolverine suddenly finds himself on the run with Mariko (Tao Okamoto), the granddaughter of the soldier and Yukio’s unofficial stepsister. Waif-thin and personality challenged, fashion model Okamoto plays Mariko with the same level of wispy, atmospheric indifference found in the average Bond girl. The filmmakers were wise to give Okamoto a minimum of dialogue and provide her with a bounty of wardrobe changes.

The first two acts are top-loaded with action and chase scenes but little to no special effects and no cars. While fleeing Tokyo for Hiroshima, Wolverine, Mariko and some mysterious archer dude dodge members of the Asian mob on foot and then atop a 300-mph bullet train. It’s easily the coolest, well-executed action set piece of this otherwise laborious summer season.

Like most things that are too good to be true, the thoughtfulness, character development and even-keel pacing of the first two acts eventually disintegrates and is replaced with random chaos, CGI overkill and events and characters that would look more at home in “The Avengers” or the recent Asian-based monstrosity “Pacific Rim.”

It is also during this transition stretch that McQuarrie and co-writer Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”) pile on the evil foils not realizing (or caring) that watering down the villain quotient by upping their number only decreases their collective “badness.” The one exception is Viper, yet another mutant played by (surprise) yet another fashion model, the Russian-born Svetlana Khodchenkova, who is in desperate need of a name change and/or shortening.

Only showing up sporadically in the first two acts, Viper shows up in the final act wearing a skin-tight green rubber suit that looks like it was designed by Catwoman and the Joker and intended for professional use by an S&M dominatrix. While presenting an alternative of sorts to her far more modest Asian female counterparts, Viper is not given enough screen time to establish an indelible personality and if the brain trust at Fox was on the ball, they’d be sure to find a part for her in some upcoming “X-Men” project.

Clocking in at 126 minutes, “The Wolverine” is far from the longest action/adventure spectacular of the 2013 summer season but could still use a healthy 20-minute edit. Some good news for techno-geeks and 3-D lovers — “The Wolverine” makes the best use of 3-D since last years’ “Life of Pi.” This is one of the rare films where paying extra for the 3-D will be well worth it. (Fox)