Col. Stryker, Magneto and Apocalypse? Yawn. In “Logan,” though, the “X-Men” franchise has finally discovered what really strikes fear in the hearts of men: an 11-year-old girl. Being stuck on a long car trip with her is the basis of the movie, and I’m still shuddering.
No, her secret power isn’t supersarcasm or nuclear-infused eye rolling, but Laura (Dafne Keen) provides plenty of drama anyway, as does this supremely well-executed neo-Western. With its dust and its rust and its chain-link fences, it is, in a small way, revolutionary. The superhero category has gotten more boring as it’s gotten more popular, but “Logan” suggests an escape from escapism, a restoration of the human element in blockbusters, a stripped-down return to the feel of 1970s Clint Eastwood pictures.
Those films made no effort to appeal to children, and “Logan” is even more violent, joining the small group of comic-book movies released with an R rating. It feels more alive from the very beginning, when Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, who says this is his last reprise of the role) is a chauffeur in a seedy drive-in theater in 2029 Texas. This Wolverine lops people’s heads off and drives his claws through people’s skulls.
He and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) hide out in Mexico with the aid of Caliban (Stephen Merchant), an albino who can sniff out mutants, after a disaster that wiped out most of the rest of the X-Men. A Mexican woman seeks out Logan to rescue her daughter, Laura, who was raised in a sinister laboratory that turns out to be a nursery for a new generation of X-Men. Along with Charles, Logan agrees to drive the sullen, silent girl north, up close to the Canadian border, to a rumored new Eden where the mutants can supposedly live in peace — as a bounty hunter (Boyd Holbrook) and nefarious scientist (Richard E. Grant) give chase.
Co-written and directed by James Mangold, the film recognizes that superhero movies such as last year’s forgettable “X-Men: Apocalypse” have become meaningless spectacle. The R rating of “Logan” helps restore a sense of stakes, that violence has consequences. Logan, who too often has been boringly invincible, is in this episode the most human he’s ever been. His instant-healing powers are breaking down due to a toxin in his system, and he carries with him an adamantine bullet in case he should feel like committing suicide.
So, the frivolity and silliness that mars most of the X-Men movies — those corny battles with innumerable mutants hurling stuff this way and that — is now replaced with a much more compelling, somber tone that gives “Logan” some heft. There is a quiet sequence in a farming community where, for instance, the movie stops to contemplate the satisfactions of authentic person-to-person relationships over technology. A cornfield where the plants are grown solely to be turned into corn syrup serves as an able metaphor for bland, mass-produced, drug-like entertainment — and also ties neatly into the fell plan advanced by the Grant character, who seeks to alter human nature for his own profit.
“Logan” does occasionally fall into the rut of whipping up fight scenes that look too much like many others, and it never rises to the beauty or importance of, say, “The Dark Knight” films, but it’s a captivating throwback that promises to lead the genre away from sci-fi flash and trickery. I’d rank it beside “X-Men: Days of Future Past” among the best X-Men entries.
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