Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Film Review: Hugh Jackman breaks the mould in the tense, powerful Logan

For as long as I can remember, I have been aimlessly pleading for a superhero film that felt unique. As in, truly unique. I'm not talking Deadpool's "conventional origin story in a disguise" act, and I'm not talking Civil War's "our story is different but the characters and tone are the same as ever" scheme - although the latter certainly made for a great film, it still didn't feel as if it strayed too far from the superhero formula. Enter Logan.

At its most basic level, James Mangold's Logan is what I've been waiting for all this time. A superhero film that wants to be more than just a superhero film. In film criticism, it's very easy to look down on the superhero genre. It's packed with big budget, crowd pleasing spectacle and you'll be hard pressed to name any that favour thoughtful themes over wacky one liners. The two major superhero cinematic universes are both plagued by something they can't seem to shake: Marvel's series refuses to abandon its formula and is losing momentum in the process, all while DC can't seem to write its characters ahead of its style. Logan is the film the superhero genre needs right now.

In 2029, mutants are an endangered species. None have been born in years. Logan (Hugh Jackman), in his older age, spends half his time as a chauffeur and hustling for prescription drugs, and the other half caring for the elderly Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). He soon finds himself responsible for a young girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) - a genetically bred mutant who shares his abilities. Hunted by the people who want to recapture her, Laura wishes for Logan to take her to a place called Eden, so she and many other young mutants can escape through the Canadian border and live a peaceful life.

Immediately, Mangold presents a maturity to Logan. After Deadpool finally allowed the superhero genre to slip into 15-rated territory (about the only thing that film was good for, really), Logan takes full advantage of this. The film's very first word is "fuck," whenever Logan's claws come into play there's more blood in one killing than in the entire MCU. It sounds like a petty thing to praise, but this advancement of the violence helps to distance Logan from its more light hearted companions. It wouldn't feel quite as coherent if its themes and ideas grew up but it still had to force itself down to a 12A rating.

It's these themes and ideas that push Logan into greatness, really. In what is surely the most emotionally complex superhero film since The Dark Knight, we're presented here with themes of mortality and family and unification. What's more, though, is that Logan's thematic work doesn't feel secondary or tacked on - it feels organic, important. The themes all tie to a specific character: Logan is consistently plagued by his impending death brought on by the adamantium that damages his body; Xavier is insistent on Logan helping Laura since, technically, she can be seen as family to him, and Xavier feels strongly for that; even Laura, in her wordlessness, sells how important freedom from her persecutors and reunification with the other mutants is for her.

By foregrounding its themes in this way, character depth and growth comes easy. Where character development feels like a optional extra in other superhero films, Logan turns it into something genuinely moving. There's a quiet homeliness to a sequence in a farmhouse, after Logan and company are taken in by an appreciative family one night. Even some of the film's more intense sequences - like a particularly standout moment in which Xavier suffers a seizure, his accidental psychic blast freezing everyone nearby - are focused on the bonds between the characters. Where any other superhero film might use this moment to create a cool set piece, Logan uses it to reinforce the bond between two people.

With its strong thematic work fleshing out its characters, Logan creates space for a trio of exceptional performances. Jackman is terrific here, his layered performance is one of the film's biggest selling points. Tough on the outside but with good intentions at heart, he flits between aggressiveness and subtlety with precision and dedication. If this really is his final performance of the character he's played for seventeen years, it's one hell of a swan song. Stewart and Keen also impress - Keen's body language and facial expressions in particular probably sell more emotion than most other superhero characters are granted even with a script full of dialogue. For most of the film Laura never speaks, but there's never a moment where we feel we don't understand her. It's a shame the horribly miscast Stephen Merchant prevents the ensemble from fully soaring.

Logan's narrative work is also sturdy. It gets its story moving quickly but allows time to slow things down and focus on tertiary characters. It makes everyone matter, even if they meet a grisly demise in a matter of minutes - Logan wants us to really feel the pain its characters go through, so any good people who die from their actions have to matter. It maybe feels 15 or 20 minutes too long - a tad too much time is spent transitioning from act two to act three - but the film pulls everything back for a heart stopping finale. It culminates in the biggest action sequence of the film - like it should do - but it doubles as the moment you realise how invested in these characters you are. It's bloody and violent and brutal, but it carries an emotional weight to it that hits you like a tonne of bricks.

I guess what I'm getting at here is that Logan is the first superhero film in a very long time that understands how thematic content works. Writing a story and finding a character and then working out what themes to give that film doesn't work. It's what the MCU keeps attempting, and what it keeps getting wrong. Mangold understands it though. Logan starts with the themes of mortality and family and unification, and writes its characters around that. By doing this, it allows the story and the performances and the violence and the humour to all seep into these themes, creating a film that feels coherent and fully realised. Once the film lands on its final shot - and, oh boy, what a final shot - you'll feel overwhelmed by the whole thing. When was the last time you could say that about a superhero film?

In A Sentence

Tackling mature themes in a thoughtful way, James Mangold's Logan is a bold and impressively unique superhero outing that boasts a breathtaking performance from Hugh Jackman.

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