Thursday, March 16, 2017

Logan (James Mangold)

Old man

(Warning! Plot twists and ending discussed in detail)

The good news: James Mangold strikes gold, parlaying the success of his previous superhero production The Wolverine to direct a sequel but on his terms--low-key, character-driven, suffused with an inconsolable melancholy that I suppose is his hallmark.

The results are fairly impressive: Logan looks unlike any other X-Men or Marvel movie out there. Somber palette colors the continuously unreeling background, with emphasis on urban decay (shot mostly in New Orleans) and rural desolation (shot in New Mexico), the countryside or big city littered with rusted sheet metal cracked concrete tangled barbed wire sandblasted rock. Digital effects are kept to a minimum, used mainly to embellish action sequences; the real stars are the forlorn landscapes and abandoned towns of America, the equally forlorn abandoned landscape of Australian actor Hugh Jackman's cragged face.

Logan's old--well he's always been old but here he (as played by Jackman) looks acts and sounds old. He drinks too much; his speed and strength have faded (waking up in the back seat of a for-rent limo--his sole means of livelihood--to an attempted hubcap heist in progress he can barely see through the boozy haze, much less fight effectively in it). He's not healing as fast his body not responding as fast, and perhaps the single wittiest image in the movie is of Logan's claws sliding out save one recalcitrant blade, which goes only halfway erect (talk about performance issues). 

There's a plot and sadly we come to realize that said plot--standard comic-book fare about mutants (kids this time) being pursued and persecuted--will soon seize control when what we really really want is for the picture to stay with this Logan: with the staggering drunk hoisting Aeneaslike to his back the crushing deadweight of bald broken-down Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and mute enigmatic Laura (Dafne Keen). 

If you watch movies at all this will be familiar material--Mangold takes his cue from Mark Millar's basic premise (Wolverine as old man), jettisons the sillier superhero stuff, then jerry-rigs the story outline of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men to serve as narrative engine. He borrows components from several other films--Shane is explicitly alluded to, and it's possible to see genetic traces of everything from Paper Moon to A Fistful of Dollars

The picture footnotes those films; it doesn't rise to their level. We don't quite get the breathtaking sinuousness of Alfonso Cuaron's long takes (which to be fair don't connect with anything in the story, just thoroughly immerses us in the filmmaker's (by way of PD James) dystopian nightmare). We don't get Sergio Leone's outsized fabulism, or George Stevens' gravid grandeur--the vast Wyoming grasslands surrounding his human figures with an overwhelming sense of monumentality. Mangold knows his movie masters all right, is alas not quite ready to join their ranks. 

Actually he's not quite ready to join the ranks of his contemporaries either. Logan does a nice job of pulling down superheroes off their pedestals (there's a cute little scene involving the paraplegic Xavier and a toilet stall) but if you want a gnarly thoroughly unhygienic comic book film James Gunn's Super would be my high (or low) water mark. A cross between Batman and Taxi Driver, generously seasoned with enough cuss words and ultraviolence to earn a solid 'R,' Gunn's film beyond all that is perversely hilariously sensual, an insightful (and startlingly literal) peek into the mind of a man willing to pull on a mask and call himself a superhero.

And while Shane is the established classic I submit that Paul W.S. Anderson's Soldier actually improves on Stevens. The film--about a former sergeant defending an adopted village from his superpowered comrades--amps up the fight sequences while dehydrating the performances to the point of robotic monotone, so that Alan Ladd's already limited acting range is distilled so many decades later into Kurt Russell's slyly menacing throat growl. Jackman and Stewart, who chomp relentlessly on the surrounding scenery, could use some of that dryness. 

Peter Bogdanovich's delicately wrought yet thoroughly unsentimental Paper Moon shows up this movie to be the thin stuff it really is. Watching Moze (Ryan O'Neal) and Addie (real-life daughter Tatum) travel across Kansas and Missouri during the Great Depression you can believe they have come to know each other, function as one on an intricate con, sometimes bicker like an old married couple; with Logan and Laura all you get are the highlights: they meet, they clash, they slaughter all attackers, and--when someone's dying--weep and cry 'Daddy!' This is some mighty morphin tearjerking we're seeing here; delicate unsentimentality is not on the menu.

Stephanie Zacharek points out that Logan channels Children of Men which channels in turn my favorite Ingmar Bergman film, Shame. I'd say she's got a point--the way Bergman puts it, dystopian cinema has rarely felt grimmer--but that's only half of Mangold's scenario. The cornier half--the young innocent who redeems the old degenerate--is a far older device, goes back as far as, O, maybe George Eliot's Silas Marner if not earlier. Eliot though knew how to write, and wove her thread of redeeming love against a backdrop of precisely sketched social and historical context. Logan references illegal immigration (Laura speaks Spanish and is at one point cared for by a Latina nurse; scenes of mutants raised in holding cells recall ICE prisons and deported DREAMer children ) racism (a black family is harassed Klu Klux Klan style, complete with vigilantes on pickups bearing guns) even driverless trucks (dangerous, unforgiving)--and none of it feels integrated into the narrative, none of it feels less than opportunistic. Like a carny ride that turns and bumps through doors, one horror is revealed after another without any real attempt to link anything together in a unifying thesis.

Logan isn't actually bad, or entirely unmoving; It just feels a tad too gimmicky (dropping the F bomb like a kid who's puffed his first joint, splattering ketchup as if having just been given permission to do), and ultimately too timid (the ending involves a superpowered (if dramatically uninteresting) foe, when what we really want to know is if state-of-the-art daughter can take down her obsolescent father). It's Mangold making a quantum leap in daring and expressiveness, wielding the resources of a major Hollywood studio to take a full bold step forward in his development--the artistic equivalent of seventeen inches.

(First published in Businessworld 3.9.17

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