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(2017) *** R
135 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: James Mangold. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dafne Keen, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Richard E. Grant, Stephen Merchant.

/content/films/5039/1.jpgIn what's more or less the theme song of Logan—Hugh Jackman's swan song as tortured superhero Wolverine—Johnny Cash sings, "There's a man goin' 'round takin' names./
An' he decides who to free and who to blame...Will you...disappear into the potter's ground./ When the man comes around?" The song "The Man Comes Around" found Cash at his most grizzled and, close to his death, contemplative of his own mortality. Much of the comic-book crowd (and most 20th Century Fox executives) probably hoped Jackman would eternally come around to the mutant he's now played for seventeen years over nine films. But time and death stalk every man, and nothing is forever: a theme of principal interest to the creative team behind Logan.

Logan marks the third and final solo film for the long-running Marvel Comics character introduced to screen audiences in the 2000 film X-Men. Director James Mangold (who helmed previous installment The Wolverine) returns, bringing with him a Western sensibility honed on his superlative 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma. Screenwriters Scott Frank & Mangold and Michael Green take very loose inspiration from a comic-book run known as "Old Man Logan," but only a few plot points carry over: a futuristic setting (in this case, 2029) that ages our hero, his mentor Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), and fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), and the notions of Logan having a child and a cross-country road trip to undertake. Beyond that, the writers give themselves the freedom to invent.

And so there's a new corporate "big bad" in Transigen Research, a company weaponizing mutant children (that this community of children has been victimized by class, and race, in the mercenary aim of profit marks one of several themes Logan has in common with movie westerns). Circumstances conspire to place one of those children—eleven-year-old Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen)—in the care of ever-reluctant hero Logan, a.k.a. James Howlett, a.k.a. Weapon X, a.k.a. Wolverine. Logan has been in superhero retirement, driving a '24 Chrysler limo and hard-drinking when not looking in on Professor X. The nonagenarian Xavier now suffers from what one character aptly describes as "a degenerative brain disease in the world's most dangerous brain." Dementia is bad, but seizures that melt the brains of everyone within a mile radius are worse, which explains why Xavier lives in a tank south of the border, down Mexico way.

/content/films/5039/2.jpgWhen Transigen's dirty worker Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) and his band of Reavers come a-callin', Logan, Xavier, and Laura flee for their lives, hitting the dusty road in search of a fabled haven called Eden. The mute Laura suspiciously shares much in common with Logan, most notably adamantium claws and barely contained rage. And so Logan becomes an unconventional-family drama with three generations of mutants forced onto a road trip, although Little Miss Sunshine this ain't.

A closer analogue is the 1953 western Shane, which Mangold quotes liberally. The concept of a "modern Western" interpolating machine guns and the like is hardly new, but Mangold plays it to the hilt, and the style suits Jackman's tightly-wound loner (who looks uncannily like latter-day Mel Gibson at times here). In one of Logan's cleverest flourishes, X-Men comics exist in Logan's universe, like the pulp adventures of the Old West that mythologized real cowboys and outlaws in exaggerated adventures (Logan spits that they're "ice cream for bedwetters"). In its valedictory mood, Logan also makes references to the films that came before, going all the way back to 2000.

What's best about Logan is its chancier approach to a genre franchise picture. Mangold heads in the exact opposite direction from Bryan Singer's epic spectacle X-Men: Apocalypse of last year, which proved sadly tiresome. Although it doesn't go too far out on its mutant limbs—the brief still prioritizes violent action, here (at last) of the brutal, bloody sort found in graphic novels—Logan wears the age of its characters as a badge of pride and an invitation to dramatic ambition. Wolverine and Professor X are shadows of their former selves, fighting off age-related ailments and their sense of heroic teamwork curdled into guilty feelings and strained familial duty ("Maybe we were God's mistake," Logan grumbles of the dwindling mutant population. "What a disappointment you are," X responds).

Jackman and Stewart sink their teeth into material that's often poignant, turning in series-best performances. Mangold, too, finds inspiration in the moments between these characters, framing moving (in both senses) images like Logan tenderly carrying his father figure up a flight of stairs and to bed. As a comic-book film, Logan seems certain to please its core audience, especially with its R-rated violence and profanity allowing for pure, uncut Wolverine. For the broader audience, there's a resonant motif in Logan that times have changed for the worst, but this dystopian world revives the humanity in these characters, a development that's all for the best.

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