Monday, March 6, 2017

'Logan' review

It's weird to think that Deadpool will likely be viewed as a turning point in the history of the modern blockbuster. Yes, that's right, a movie about a foul-mouthed, hyperviolent vigilante who makes sex jokes all the time is a landmark in the superhero genre. That's all because of the R-rating, which was bestowed upon the film thanks to its constant profanity and bloody violence. Viewed for years as a mark of shame that severely limited the potential audience, Deadpool's R-rating quite possibly changed the game, as the film made a staggering $783 million worldwide. It was the second highest grossing R-rated film of all time, but many studios still viewed it as an anomaly. Fox doubled down on their strategy of releasing mature superhero films, giving director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman free reign to go all-out with the third and final chapter in the Wolverine saga, simply entitled Logan. No established superhero had ever been given such a violent project, so many saw Logan as an enormous risk for Fox.

And so far, that risk has paid off. Logan made $241 million at the box office this weekend, which is hugely impressive for this kind of film. There's a good chance that the one-two punch of Deadpool and Logan will open the floodgates for R-rated blockbuster content (more on that in the coming days), but there's another quality that links the films- they're both exceptionally good. Deadpool was a fun, wickedly entertaining satire that turned the genre on its head, and Logan is the first truly adult superhero film that tells a story without the constraints of an oppressive set of studio notes. It's a movie that has no connections to any other superhero films or any other installments in the X-Men series. It stands completely on its own. It indulges the character in all of his brutality and vulgarity, and it provides the audience with a devastating emotional coda.

Mangold and Jackman put everything they could into this epic final chapter, and in the process, they created what might be the best "superhero" film (this is really a western chase movie) since The Dark Knight, and the best blockbuster since Mad Max: Fury Road. Logan is thrilling, visceral cinema, superb character drama mixed with vicious action filmmaking to great effect. It is everything you could possibly want it to be, and the fact that something like this got made in today's studio landscape makes me so happy. This film could be a true trailblazer in the industry, proving once and for all that superhero cinema can reach dizzying, resonant heights. Logan is an incredible ending for a storied actor and an iconic character, but it's also a hopeful new beginning for a franchise and a genre. Simply put, thanks to the astonishing work of Mangold and Jackman, Logan is one of the best films in recent memory.

Set in 2029, Logan finds the titular mutant (Jackman) in a dystopian future where most of the mutants have been wiped out entirely. Logan is living south of the border, moving back and forth between Mexico and the United States on a daily basis. He's living in a dusty, dirty location, holed up with an aging, diseased Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino with the ability to track mutants. Logan works as a limo driver, but his immortality is finally fading- he can't take the horrific beatings like he could in the past, and there's clearly something going on inside him. While working a funeral one day, Logan's stagnant life is thrown for a loop. A woman named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) tracks him down, hoping to get his assistance in escaping from a shady agency. Logan tells her to screw off, but the story doesn't end there.

Soon, Logan is being tracked by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his gang of mutated soldiers, who hope to find the location of a mysterious girl. Quickly realizing that something sinister is going on, Logan meets Gabriela again, who happens to be in the care of a young mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen). Equipped with a set of skills very similar to Logan, Laura and Gabriela are on the run from Pierce and Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant), who view her as an asset that needs to be eliminated. Despite his initial hesitance, Logan soon finds himself on the run with Charles and Laura, hoping to find a beautiful safe haven in North Dakota. As danger surrounds them at every corner, an aging Logan and a dying Charles must come to terms with the events of their life- what they've done, the people they've hurt, and the future of mutantkind itself.

Over the last few days Logan has received praise for feeling like a real movie, which seems like a completely idiotic remark on the surface. After all, don't all superhero films count as movies? But as I watched this saga unfold, the richness of the story and the quality of the filmmaking made me think the exact same thing. Logan is a complete, cohesive story, one that flows beautifully and operates with a remarkable contrast between horrific brutality and deeply human emotion. It's a classic piece of cinema, one that just so happens to feature a cast of vicious mutants. It's a shame that a movie like Logan is an oddity in a Hollywood market overrun by interconnectivity and world-building, and it filled me with a sense of regret for all of the missed opportunities in the superhero sphere over the years. In an increasingly formulaic, cluttered universe, the scale and humanity of Logan is a breath of fresh air, and the fact that it's a pretty kick-ass, hard-R action movie only makes it that much more amazing. If all superhero films were this layered and fascinating, the term "superhero fatigue" wouldn't even have a reason to exist.

Logan's explicit rating has been the subject of much excitement and interest, and it's pretty much the major selling point of the film. This seems like it could potentially be a gratuitous gimmick, as I ultimately don't believe that these kinds of movies have to be rated R to be good. That being said, Mangold makes the most of the opportunity he was given, and he utilizes the violence and profanity to fit into the bleak overall vision of this project. Logan is the most violent blockbuster in recent years, filled to the brim with blood, gore, and much, much more. It's exhilarating to watch it all unfold, as Logan hacks and slashes through an endless barrage of baddies, accompanied by all of the vicious consequences we've never had the chance to see in a major superhero movie. Eventually, as Logan moves closer and closer to its perfect conclusion, the violence becomes increasingly difficult to watch, the sheer force of the emotion and the savagery on display becomes even more effective. In the hands of a less precise, careful director, Logan could have been excessive and redundant. Instead, it emerges as a perfectly calibrated piece of cinematic bloodshed.

To be quite honest with you, Logan would work very well on its own as the story of a bitter, dying man given one last chance at redemption. It has the intentional quality of a classic western, which is obvious when you realize that Mangold modeled the film after classics like Shane (referenced multiple times during the course of the film) and Unforgiven. However, Logan is enhanced by the fact that we've spent almost two decades with this character, played brilliantly in eight previous films by Hugh Jackman. This is undoubtedly his crowning achievement in the role, as he digs deep into the soul of the immortal mutant and finds immense pain, tragedy, and surprising compassion. His turn in this film is both a physical and emotional powerhouse, as he gives us a disturbing, horrifying look at Logan on his last legs, while also allowing us to peer into the soul of his relationships with Professor Xavier and the young Laura. Logan finds the mutant at his most introspective, searching for his humanity and his drive to keep moving forward after a life defined by violence and tragedy. This is stunning, Oscar-caliber stuff, and I sincerely hope that the Academy keeps Jackman in mind come awards season.

While most of the attention has deservedly centered around Logan being Jackman's final performance as Wolverine, it's also likely to be Patrick Stewart's curtain call as the equally iconic Charles Xavier. Now 90 years old, Xavier is nearly senile, suffering from a degenerative brain disease while living in a dusty watertower. Stewart certainly indulges the bitter aspects of the elderly character's personality (yes, Professor X curses up a storm in this movie), but he never loses sight of who Xavier is at his core. Like Logan, Xavier is grappling with the consequences of his powers and the pain he has caused others over the years. After seeing him as a beacon of strength and composure for years, it's tough to see Charles as an old man on the verge of death. It's a testament to Stewart's performance that it works so incredibly well, and despite some exceptional work in 2014's Days of Future Past, this will certainly go down as his best turn as the character.

Logan serves as a terrific send-off for two of the most famous characters of 21st century cinema, but it also introduces us to the future of the X-franchise- Dafne Keen's Laura, known to comic book fans as X-23. Seriously, if Simon Kinberg and the people behind the X-Men series don't make her the star of the show for the next several years, there is no justice in this world. Keen is a breakout sensation, holding her own against two superstars without ever saying a word before delivering some of the most devastating moments of the entire film. She's a genuinely terrific actress, and she's deserving of all the praise that will surely be coming her way. Beyond the main trifecta, Logan has the benefit of a tremendous ensemble, led by the villainous Boyd Holbrook and the sympathetic Stephen Merchant. As Pierce, Holbrook (star of Netflix's Narcos) is at his dastardly best, giving us a memorable villain with a distinct Southern twang and a commanding, charismatic presence. The main baddie is really Richard E. Grant's Dr. Zander Rice, but Holbrook steals nearly every scene he's in. The same could be said for Merchant, who is just perfect as the mannered, kind-hearted Caliban, who emerged as one of my favorite characters in the entire film. In a landscape where most characters are featured in movies as fan service, it's rare to have such a perfect crew of actors, working at the top of their game to create something genuinely special.

Nonetheless, you can't understate the importance of James Mangold, who has done his best work with this astounding superhero saga. As someone who was left disappointed by his first Wolverine film, I was truly impressed by what he put together. Logan is so richly textured and deeply felt that you simply want to soak in every bit of its atmosphere and energy, bathing in the beautiful cinematography of John Mathieson while the pitch-perfect score by Marco Beltrami plays in the background. Mangold wears his western influences on his sleeve, which is something that few filmmakers have ever done in this genre. If Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight was the crime saga of superhero movies, then Mangold's Logan is the classic western story of revenge and redemption. In a blockbuster world that favors cookie-cutter plotting and generic visual sheen, Mangold has now earned the right to stand alongside Nolan as one of the few auteurs of the superhero genre. The fact that there's such a remarkable plethora of subtext, ranging from the inner battle of Logan's profoundly damaged mind to the current geo-political landscape of immigration, only makes it that much more dazzling.

So yeah, Logan is pretty much a masterpiece. If I had to come up with a complaint or two, maybe it's a little too long, especially with a pace that feels leisurely towards the end of the second act. But that is such a nitpick, as Logan is an engrossing, enormously entertaining film that stands as one of the best blockbusters of this decade so far. It's the first great film of 2017, the best of the X-franchise, and it should be in the Oscar conversation. Throw out a superlative, and Logan probably deserves it. A character study that is as resonant and haunting as it is brutally captivating, Logan just hits all the right notes. Mangold delivered something truly revolutionary, and it's hard for me to imagine another superhero film being this good for a very long time.

Oh, and did I mention the final shot? It's one for the ages. Seriously, Logan is magnificent. It's the X-Men movie we've all been waiting to see for a very, very long time.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                              (9.5/10)

Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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