Logan (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
24May/170

Logan (2017)

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Logan, the once near-invincible fighting beast, is dying.  Age is catching up to his healing powers and the adamantium skeleton bolstering his strength is poisoning him.  Logan's presented with an opportunity to do some good, lead kids to a safe haven, and give his now struggling mentor one last chance to instruct his wayward pupil.  James Mangold directs Logan, with the screenplay written by James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green, and stars Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen.

One of my rules for reviewing movies is to do my best to separate myself from other critical writing.  That was damn near impossible in the case of Logan which, hopefully, stands as the last time director James Mangold and Hugh Jackman team up.  Most of my cineaste circles praised Logan as a gritty, heartfelt, and stirring return to form with American Western cinematic motifs sprinkled throughout.  With respect to those who hold that opinion, the only sign Logan is operating in the world of Westerns is the appearance of the classic Shane.  It's like listening to people talk about how The Winter Soldier was like a '70s paranoid thriller with barely a thought about how the aesthetics actually contribute to the genre.

The inspiration Logan draws from has more to do with fables than it does lone gunmen riding off into the sunset.  In this frame, and not one of a Western, Mangold and Jackman do a spectacular job creating a fable with no strong moral point to make save the sins visited on children to become stronger for the future.  Logan recalls Joe Wright's wonderfully violent fable Hanna than it does Mangold's own 3:10 to Yuma and is all the stronger for it.  The X-Men cinematic series and its various offshoots have screwed up their overt social commentary so many times that it's refreshing to see Logan jettison that for a dreamy road trip.

Typical Western conventions involve a collision between civilizing and frontier forces, questioning honor in a locale where the term has shifting value, and battles over the "soul" of a community.  Logan features a long-depressed warrior going on a cross-country adventure with a mentally powerful wizard on his last legs and a child prodigy raised to be a feral weapon.  Heck, there's even a supposed magical sanctuary at the end of all this, and potions that help bring the warrior back his former fighting spirit.

Memories of past glories decay in quiet despair in the best shots of Logan.

Even the fight scenes, which range from rote slashathons to creepily effective specters of death slowly stalking their prey, have more to do with the environmental awareness of duels than high-stakes shootouts.  The latter of those examples results in one of Logan's dreamiest clashes as Charles Xavier (the returning Patrick Stewart) loses control of his powers in time for Logan to drag himself over to kill men who see their deaths coming but can do nothing about it.  Great fables usually don't wink at the audience, a lesson the Marvel Studios productions could learn a lesson about, and the beastly knight Logan (himself a fabulist contradiction) slowly eviscerating each of his opponents as they stare terrified is the stuff of mythical terror.

The other benefit Logan gains from its fabulist aesthetic is a sense of gravity to unintended consequences.  While we can have great discussions on the meaning, many of the great Westerns have their fair share of moralizing.  The screenplay for Logan, written by Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green, doesn't skimp away from the human cost of living alongside powerful beasts.  Logan, Xavier, and Laura (Dafne Keen) take an ill-advised rest stop with a loving family who treats them to a home cooked meal.  This family, living on one of the last frontiers in farming and struggling with a local water baron, could have spun Logan out into the Western some folks seem to think it is.  As the family is slaughtered because of fantastic forces out of their control, we see how the morality of Westerns has no place in the fabulist conflict of Logan.

At its best, Logan deserves a place beside the true great moral superhero movies of Zack Snyder.  Neither Mangold nor Snyder shy away from the immense power of their images.  I shuddered a bit at the scope of the steadily decaying makeshift cage for Xavier, which looks to be repurposed from a collapsed water tower, and the once powerful mind being reduced to a gibbering mess of thoughts Logan can no longer shield from him.  Where Logan falls short its in the standard superhero action we've come to expect.  The stakes between Superman and Batman in BvS are about more than the fight, they're about competing visions of society and the cultural forces shaping our perception of their conflict.  When Logan slashes a bunch of goons and starts removing limbs there's no philosophical weight to the action, just the visceral thrill of seeing Logan return to his beastly state.

On the left, Stephen Merchant pulling off a fabulist monster turned hero, and on the right your typical sociopath dutifully played by Boyd Holbrook.

Which, hey, if that's your thing - more power to you.  Less defensible is the way the grunts are initially presented.  The mostly cookie-cutter opponents have a bit of personality in the beginning when Logan is attacked by then brutally murders presumably Mexican car jackers.  In a sea of forgettable grunts, these are the people who get a bit of personality, and it's hard not to feel that a movie largely devoid of stereotyping stooped for a racist jab before going back to personality-free opponents.  Similarly, Logan's nemesis Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) is the sort of generic sadist that's better served as a one to two issue villain instead of a 2-hour farewell to the Wolverine.

Jackman, for his part, does what he's always done with Logan and fills the pathos with varying levels of uncontrollable emotion.  Really there's not too much of a difference between the Logan Jackman presents here and the Logan who was cage fighting some seventeen years ago.  The surprise success comes from Stephen Merchant, whose massive figure hides incredible pain as he moves from one metaphorical prison to a literal one.  Keen, as Laura, is one part of the antidote to the irresponsible fun of Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass.  Where her cinematic predecessor Hanna was trained to slay the queen and used cold efficiency to get her way, Laura is the terrifying result of torturing children at such an intense hormonal period of her life.  There's no celebrating the monster Laura already is, only finding some way to cope with it, and by writing her with the natural combustion of an adolescent Mangold and crew avoid the self-congratulatory tone of Hit-Girl homicidal urges.

I was moved by Logan, but as with all fables lacking philosophical stakes it's a movement largely due to the craft and less to the story.  Mangold and cinematographer John Mathieson have made a visually evocative comic book movie that is worlds removed from the house style of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  If only we could have gotten some philosophical stakes in play Logan could have been spectacular.  As it is, Logan is a great movie, and a hopeful starting point for cinematic artists looking to make their comic book protagonists have similar weight to the emotions of their stories.

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Logan (2017)

Directed by James Mangold.
Screenplay written by James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen.

Posted by Andrew

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