Friday, July 7, 2017

Logan (20th Century Fox, Marvel Entertainment, Donners’ Company, Kinberg Genre, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” was Logan, ninth and (presumably) last of the X-Men series movies in which Hugh Jackman portrays the character of Wolverine, a biologically engineered assassin whose big trademark is that when he needs an invulnerable weapon, claws made of a synthetic metal called adamantium emerge from between his regular fingers, and these are sharp enough he can literally decapitate someone with them. The film was released earlier this year, and if your idea of a superhero film is a joyous romp through various elaborate action sequences with clearly defined heroes and villains, this is definitely not your movie. Indeed, it’s so relentlessly dark that the Blu-Ray package includes three discs, alternate Blu-Ray and DVD versions of the film as theatrically released plus a third Blu-Ray disc with something called Logan Noir, which is the same movie in black-and-white. Of this smorgasbord of options we watched the color version of the Blu-Ray, and while much of it was in the dirty brown-and-green color scheme that seems to be modern-day cinematographers’ default look for virtually everything, a) there were a few shots that contained bright colors (including a sequence set at the “Liberty Motel” that seemed to me inspired by the “Victory Motel” climax at the end of L.A. Confidential) and b) the entire look of the film was so dark for once that dirty brown-and-green look was actually appropriate. 

Basically, Logan is a “road movie” in which Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is working as a limo driver just across the U.S. border in Mexico. He’s also taking care of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who since the destruction of his school for mutant kids in Westchester has been reduced to a pathetic existence living inside a giant oil tank and being kept shot up with drugs because he can no longer control his mental energies and unless he’s kept perpetually sedated he could send off “psionic” emissions that would be dangerous to anyone in his vicinity. In the opening sequence Logan is confronted by a Mexican street gang that wants to steal his limo, and he fights them off but in the process “outs” himself and reveals his whereabouts to the sinister corporate leader Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), head of a company called “Transigen” (a marvelously evocative name suggesting “intransigent,” “transgenic” — a euphemism for “genetically modified” — and “transgender”). The film is set in 2029 (though, as a number of contributors noted, aside from the specially modified Chrysler limo Logan drives in the opening scenes the cars shown are all modern-day models with no attempt to make them look like cars from 12 years in the future) and in the universe in which it takes place, no new mutants have been born in the last 25 years. Given how effectively the whole X-Men premise has been used in previous films as a sort of metaphor for the Queer experience — particularly the anti-mutant repression as well as the internal dilemma every mutant faces as to whether to remain closeted or come out — the situation in Logan reflects the fear of a lot of Queer people that scientific research aimed at finding out why people are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual or Transgender could be used as a means to eliminate us altogether from future generations. 

In the early parts of Logan it’s a mystery why no natural mutants have been born in the previous quarter-century, but midway through the movie Pierce explains that he and his fellow corporate baddies have deliberately contaminated humans’ food supplies with genetically modified corn syrup and other nasties that have prevented the mutations that created the X-Men in the first place from ever happening again. But that hasn’t been enough for the dark forces at Transigen: they’ve also bioengineered their own mutants, and one of them, manufactured from Logan’s DNA and therefore biologically his daughter, is Laura (Dafne Keen), who looks about 12. Laura’s mother Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) offers him $50,000 to take her and her daughter to North Dakota, site of the fictional “Eden,” supposedly a place where mutants can live unmolested by the forces of big government and big business that are out to enslave and/or slaughter them all. Logan insists that “Eden” doesn’t really exist — it’s just a fantasy created by the writers of the X-Men comic books (one of the things I like about this movie is the metafictional way the X-Men comics are incorporated into the story, much the way Michael Connelly incorporated into subsequent “Lincoln Lawyer” series books the fact that the first one was filmed — the “real” character in the later novels even boasts that Matthew McConaughey played him in the movie!) — but Laura insists that it’s real and Logan must take her there even though all the money she has is the $20,000 her mom gave Logan before she was killed. The film basically is a race across country between Logan, Laura and Xavier in a variety of trucks, each one seemingly skuzzier and more decrepit than the last; and the combined forces of Donald Pierce and his big-government and big-business allies (Logan clearly has elements of political allegory, but like a lot of other recent movies and TV shows it can be read either as a Left-wing parable about the evils of capitalism or a Right-wing one about the freedom of the individual against an oppressive government), who in order to trace Logan have kidnapped Caliban (Stephen Merchant, looking a lot like the “Riff Raff” character Richard O’Brien played in the original Rocky Horror Picture Show), the fellow mutant who was living with Logan in the Mexican desert and helping him take care of Xavier in the opening scenes. 

There’s a horrifying moment in which, in order to keep the albino Caliban under his thumb, Pierce throws open a window in his enclosure and exposes him to sunlight — and Caliban’s skin quickly turns red and blotchy, a condition that’s obviously going to kill him if it’s allowed to continue. One of the most fascinating aspects of Logan is the sheer extent of the armed forces Pierce is able to marshal whenever they find Logan’s whereabouts — reason enough that it appears he’s in league with the government, having already wiped out the natural mutants and being committed to recapture his genetically engineered ones at their redoubt in North Dakota, while they’re equally committed to sneaking across the border into Canada, where they will at least theoretically be safe. (Of course, in real life someone as unscrupulous as Pierce wouldn’t bother to stop his military campaign just because a borderline was in his way.) What sets Logan apart from other superhero movies is its unrelieved gloominess: we know that the good guys are being so relentlessly pursued by the bad guys that there’s no rest for the non-wicked in this film, and even when they appear to have found a temporary sanctuary — like the Vegas-style casino to which they briefly repair (and there are marvelous shots contrasting the bedraggled fugitives with the well-dressed tourists who are the place’s main customer base — I had assumed they’d actually driven to Vegas but according to, the location is actually a Native American casino in Oklahoma) and where Xavier has a psionic outburst that literally causes the casino walls, as well as everyone inside, to shake (an effect created, according to an “trivia” poster, by shooting the footage hand-held, deliberately making it shaky, and then using post-production technology to re-stabilize the frame, disorienting the audience as well as the characters with the combination of motion blur and smearing created by the effect) — their past and their uncertain present catch up with them. 

The film’s most tragic sequence is when Logan, Laura and Xavier meet up with an African-American family, Will Munson (Eriq LaSalle), his wife Kathryn (Elise Neal) and their son Nate (Quincy Fouse), when their truck has been run off the road and the horse trailers they were towing have come open, letting the horses out. Logan is reluctantly talked into helping him by Xavier, not wanting to get involved and wanting even less to inflict his rotten luck on yet more decent people who are just going to end up as collateral damage (“Bad shit happens to people I care about,” Logan explains to Laura) — as indeed they do, as Logan helps Will in a fight against local rednecks who’ve just cut off the access to water he needs to run his farm. He takes out some of the rednecks, slicing one’s head off in a gruesome scene that would be even more horrific if director James Mangold didn’t get it on and off screen in such a hurry, but this alerts Pierce and his minions to Wolverine’s presence and the result is a bloodbath in which, this being an X-Men movie, the nice people all die. In the end the “Eden” redoubt actually exists and Laura is reunited with her old friends from the These Are the Damned-style Transigen compound in which she grew up, but in the final scene they have to make a run across the Canadian border and Logan [spoiler alert!] deliberately O.D.’s on the drug that potentiates his super-powers and wards off the toxic effects of all that adamantium in his body, thereby getting his young charges across the border at the sacrifice of his own life. This doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be another Wolverine film — not only is this a fantasy, which means that just because you actually see a character die you can’t assume you won’t see them again, but at least two other characters, Laura and Pierce’s assassin, have the Wolverine mutation — though Hugh Jackman gave a number of interviews when this film came out swearing up and down that this will be, cross his heart and hope to die, his last appearance as Wolverine. (Yeah, right, I thought: if the producers dangle a check in front of him and the amount has enough zeroes at the end of it, I’m sure he’ll play the part again.) 

Jackman is one of my favorite modern-day actors — though my support of him comes largely from his brilliant performance in a tragically little-known film, Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (and even there he was playing a character similar to Wolverine, a man of mystery who helps out a heroine in distress while himself remaining forbidding and remote) — but I can tell he’s getting as tired of the role as Lon Chaney, Jr. got of the Wolf Man (and there are similarities, especially the growling noises Wolverine emits as he transforms from normal human being into mutant killing machine), especially since about the only emotions he can register in the part are alienation and angst. Still, even though much of Logan is pretty slow going, I really liked the film: Mangold, who’d previously worked on the series in another Jackman vehicle, The Wolverine, directs superbly — and the script is also based on his story, though he directly collaborated with another writer, Scott Frank, on turning it into a screenplay and a third scribe, Michael Green, was brought in for subsequent revisions. Mangold’s résumé is full of movies about people put in extreme circumstances, many times skirting the thin edge of sanity — Girl, Interrupted, Cop Land, the remake of 3:10 to Yuma and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line (in a sort of odd directorial trademark, the song we hear during the first part of the closing credits is one of Cash’s last records, “The Man Comes Around,” credited to Cash as songwriter but obviously a variant on the old spiritual “There’s a Man Goin’ ’Round Takin’ Names”) — and his two collaborations with Jackman as Wolverine are clearly in that line. The acting in this movie is well done, despite Jackman’s occasional hints of boredom with the role; Patrick Stewart plays well as a shrunken (literally; director Mangold wanted him to lose weight to suggest the character’s decrepit state — and also to make it easier for Jackman to lift him and carry him around, which happens several times in the film) version of the once powerful Master of the X-Men; and Dafne Keen as Laura is great, refreshingly unsentimental (it’s taken decades for the malign influence of Shirley Temple to wear off and allow filmmakers to depict children as multidimensional characters instead of drowning them all in gooey sweetness) and strong-willed. I’m going to make the same prediction about her I made (accurately) about Kirsten Dunst after Interview with the Vampire: she’ll have a great career as an adult actress.