To the list of standard truisms advanced by Hollywood movies — money can't buy happiness, beauty doesn't ensure love — "The Wolverine" is eager to add another certainty: comic book heroes are forever grumbling about their lot in life.
One might think that having superpowers or at least extraordinary abilities would make a person cheerful if not downright happy. But no, the stalwarts of the Marvel universe like Spider-Man and the Hulk are always moping around letting us know that nobody knows the trouble they've seen.
The grumbliest of these grumblers has always been Wolverine, the man with the adamantium claws. As played over and over again to great effect by Hugh Jackman, Wolverine can be counted on to be surliness personified, a man who would have us believe that the gifts of self-healing and berserker strength are a curse not a blessing.
Jackman has in fact played Wolverine six times on film since his debut as the character in 2000, with a seventh outing in the works, and this latest venture reminds us how fortunate we are to have a capable, committed actor who exudes masculinity in the title role.
Unfortunately, not even Jackman can completely rescue his character's latest outing. As directed by the usually reliable James Mangold, "The Wolverine" is an erratic affair, more lumbering than compelling, an ambitious film with its share of effective moments that stubbornly refuses to catch fire.
Written by Mark Bomback and Scott Frank, "Wolverine" is based on a graphic novel miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller that takes Logan, the mutant's alter ego, to Japan and involves him in complicated family dynamics that would not be out of place in "Days of Our Lives." But before he takes that fateful trip to the Orient, a heavily bearded and long-haired Logan can be found living off the grid in Alaska, marking his territory with those fierce claws and scaring man and grizzly alike.
As dream-like conversations with the ghost of his great love Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) reveals, Logan is hiding out from life as a result of the unhappy events of 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand," though viewers who have only dim memories of that film will have a hard time understanding exactly what is going on.
Logan is rescued from his terminal lassitude by the appearance of Yukio (an engaging Rila Fukushima), a red-haired sprite with a tough attitude who has been looking for the clawed one for more than a year.
It seems that a Japanese industrialist named Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) is the Japanese soldier saved by Wolverine in an exciting World War II sequence that begins the film. Now scary-wealthy and seriously ill, he wants Logan to come to Japan so he can say goodbye. Or so he says.
Once Logan takes the bait, things get complicated. For one thing, the dying man covets those Wolverine powers. For another, his inner circle, including his son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada), his granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) and a protective ninja archer named Harada (Will Yun Lee) do not work and play well together.
Mangold, whose previous films include "I Walk the Line" and "3:10 to Yuma," works hard, maybe too hard, to infuse Japanese local color into the story, shooting in iconic spots such as a pachinko parlor and a bullet train. His action sequences are all solid — a ninja attack in a snowy landscape and a battle on the top of that speedy train are especially good — but problems in other areas slow things down.
For one thing, "Wolverine's" grab-bag plot is too scattered and far-fetched to be satisfying. Even the welcome appearance of the evil Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova, memorable as Irina in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") doesn't make enough of a difference.
The film also miscalculates in its romance between Mariko and Logan. Okamoto, a former model making her film debut, looks lovely but nothing within hailing distance of chemistry between Jackman and her is visible on-screen.
Also unsatisfying is the key plot point that has Wolverine facing a mysterious diminution of his powers. The notion of the mutant becoming more human is intriguing in theory, but in practice it turns out not to be anything we want to see. If the Wolverine can't be the Wolverine, why are we putting up with all that grumbling?
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and language
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: In general releaseCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times