"Logan" is terrific.
It's one of the best superhero movies of the past decade--and, as such, it comes as no small surprise.
Specifically, it's a Wolverine movie. That is, it's an X-Men movie. But this is a 137-minute, R-rated superhero movie for grown ups and late-teens, people who will find its emotions every bit as moving as they find its extremely brutal action exciting.
If "Doctor Strange" was the coolest visual fiesta among recent comic book extravaganzas, this thing does something for them unexpected in the extreme. It turns a comic book mutant freak into a physically aging superhero who is about to have his own forlorn appointment with mortality.
When we first see Wolverine (Logan is his real name), he's not a formidable superhero waiting to sprout homicidal claws from his fingers, he's a limo driver and a drunk and a junkie driving spoiled prom kids around. His hair is streaked with gray and his life is streaked with hard times.
It's 2029. The other X-Men are gone. He's now the protector of 90-year old X-Men leader Charles, now confined to a wheelchair and a life of medicinal maintenance to keep his "spells" from paralyzing the world around him.
It's a comic book fantasy world, of course, but it's presented in such a way that it's almost plausible. For those of us who are old hands at superhero fantasies at the movies, this almost comes off as realism.
And all of it has an emotional affect right from the beginning. That's because it's directed by a moviemaker whose greatest gift has been for directing action movies and movies about credible human beings in crisis--James Mangold.
Mangold is the director of the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk, the Line," and the arresting Angelina Jolie Oscar movie "Girl, Interrupted." He's the fellow who made the unexpectedly powerful remake of "3:10 to Yuma" starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale and "Cop Land," the last credible movie starring Sylvester Stallone.
And now we're somehow caught up in the tale of a superhero sick to death of being both super and heroic. "Nature made me a freak," he says. "Man made me a weapon. God made it last too long."
That's Wolverine played with startling seriousness by Hugh Jackman, who snarls at Patrick Stewart, playing chair-bound Charles, even as the mutant does everything possible to keep him alive and fed and medicated. All the while Charles rails at him "what a disappointment you are."
Something new has entered Charles' bitter and grungy environs--an 11-year-old mute girl named Laura. She's an ordinary kid, it seems --silent of course and, therefore, more seemingly sullen than most.
She's just a kid who, on long road trips, wants to try on all-too-gaudy sunglasses next to the cash register of highway road stops. She wants to grab all the junk food she can. But she also has to be stopped from unsheathing her rapier fingers and turning that store proprietor into roadkill. She isn't entirely clear, at the age of 11, why human impediments to her impulsive desires can't be turned instantly into sashimi.
She's played by a young actress named Dafne Keen who is feral to the exact degree that Jackman is angry, bitter, disgusted and world-weary.
Kids and brutes have been one of the great moviehouse partner stories since "The Champ." (Best rendered by Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Luc Besson's "The Professional.") What this does is turn this elegiac "Twilight of the Superhero" tale into a new kind of educational romance in which a murderous mutant is taught the elementary manners of her feakish condition.
She needs to know those whom it is OK to shred into bits and those innocent bystanders who are to be protected, not slashed into ribbons and chunks of stray human organic matter.
What we learn as the film progresses is that there are other young mutants who need to be protected by Wolverine--whose relationship to Laura turns out to be special indeed, if not entirely unpredictable.
So yes, this kid-and-brute tale has the same foolproof dimensions of an educational romance about the genuine world-weariness of a superhero with no more desire to continue and a baby mutant whose silence is an ominous cover for the bloodlust within.
The startling trick here is to turn Wolverine into a self-destructive and fed-up old man--a guy who just might, in private, listen to Johnny Cash records for the suppressed anger and killing violence.
And director Mangold, incredibly, makes you buy Wolverine's "where are the mutants of yesteryear" melancholy.
It needs to be said about this movie that the violence is plentiful and as entertaining and exciting to watch as it is often cruel. It's action movie-making, not CGI folderol a la a "Transformers" movie.
The combination, then, of sentimentality and cruelty is so endemically American that "Logan" almost seems to be flirting with stature as a genuinely classic comic book movie.
We Americans have a biological taste for sweetness and salt together--as in, say, a peanut butter cookie or chicken and waffles.
"Logan" makes a passing reference to "Shane" not because it thinks it's a 21st century "Shane" but because it's smart enough to know how our most basic appetites for such things work.
Which is how the audience for "Logan" will work, to its enormous satisfaction .
3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Richard E. Grant and Eriq LaSalle
Director: James Mangold
Running time: 137 minutes
Rated: R for strong and brutal violence and language throughout, brief nudity.
The lowdown: An aging and world-weary Wolverine discovers that an 11-year-old mute girl has the same superhero powers he does.