Tom Jolliffe on Logan’s final third and losing a grip on greatness. Warning. Major spoilers follow…
So there you are. You’re bowling a near perfect game. You’ve had the odd spare here and there but largely you’ve had strikes. Then you hit a gutter ball and your game starts falling apart. Sometimes it can end disastrously, or you may just be able to maintain a reasonable finish, but in the end you’ll still look back and wonder whether you missed out on greatness because of one misjudgement on your spin.
I’ve watched Logan. The trailers were fantastic. The hype big and the reviews first rate. This was surely going to be immense. For the first hour or so it was. This saw a dark, tragic and beaten down Wolverine, meandering slowly to his grave in 2029. The world the X-Men inhabited, that we’ve seen in the 90 or so films that have preceded this (directly and indirectly) is long gone. Mutants are near extinct. The gene mutations slowly eradicated by the government and large corporations with gradual reconditioning through things like fizzy drinks and processed foods. No more new Mutants being born, while the remaining ones were slowly culled.
Oozing in Eastwoodian Western tropes, with beautifully sandy visuals and intense performances from Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, this guns for greatness. There’s strength in James Mangold’s conviction to deliver something different. Perhaps more in line with Nolan’s Batman trilogy (more on that later) tonally as opposed to the previous X films, or other Marvel products but very much its own beast. This is an adults comic book film, in that it is actively non-comic book. The world created is stark and in no small part firmly directed at society right now and the way we’re possibly heading. It’s not an attractive future by any means. Yet we don’t see too much, given the intimacy of the film as it focuses on Logan’s road trip with his unexpected daughter, and the ailing Xavier (whose degenerating brain and potentially destructive seizures cause problems).
Then the film, for me, drops a clanger. Up to this point I’m gripped. I’m fully ensconced into this world Mangold has created. Then jarringly, the film feels the need to throw in a Frankensteinian super villain. You have the Doctor (Richard E. Grant), but it’s his creation, a soulless Wolverine super clone thingy (to use its technical term) that kind of shows a bare ass across the film. It’s almost like someone standing up in the row in front of you for the rest of the film, waving his tackle in your face, trying to distract you. Okay, maybe not that bad (just to clarify that’s never happened to me before in the cinema) but from then on, Mangold’s Western derails and goes conventional comic book. It loses the conviction it was going for. For me, up until that moment I was looking at a five star movie, which then slid off course down three star avenue.
The impact is instant as his introduction essentially takes almost all of the emotional impact of Charles Xavier’s death away.
At this point the creature (X-24 or whatever it’s called) turns the film from Unforgiven to Universal Soldier. Now as much as I love Universal Soldier (and the latter two sequels), this isn’t what I wanted from Logan, given the trailers and the opening two thirds of the film. It was all building to a great Leone style showdown. Boyd Holbrook as Pierce was a decent villain. Strong enough with his band of merciless mercs to provide ample opposition to Wolvie and company come the finale. The film doesn’t pull this entirely out of the blue. It does pre-warn and it does hint, but it still doesn’t excuse such a tonal shift, that turns right into what it initially appears to be actively avoiding. The film even has recognisable nods to the Universal Soldier films (probably not intentional) from green super serum injected into the neck, to the campy doctor, the unwilling cohort who grenades himself to death inside the government truck whilst trying to take out his captors, to X-24 getting impaled on a combine harvester following a farm set showdown with the film’s hero (not to mention the possibility hinted at of limitless cloning, to keep bringing back Wolverines and/or other mutants as super weapons). The film then carries on and veers off into an homage (not intentional again…probably) of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome as Logan finds himself at a colony of child mutants all looking for redemption in a place of hope (which may or may not exist, or be what they expect).
Okay, things aren’t terrible, and we’ve invested enough into the world to just about go with it, but the change of course stops Logan from being a great film. I didn’t feel a need for them to start getting silly when it sets out a remit that isn’t supposed to be that way. This isn’t the first film to do this of course. In fact in the last 20 or so years, it seems films within the action genre in particular just struggle in the final third.
Another example within Marvel canon is Blade. I recall finding the first hour exhilarating, intense and fresh. Great visuals, great action, a fantastic Wesley Snipes, charismatic villain. Then what happened? Firstly, suntan lotion on vampires. That happened. Then the finale descended into some bonkers showdown with some now heavily dated CGI. An inconsistent film isn’t quite so jarring if it begins and ends so. But when you have someone hurtling like a freight train out the blocks, going for Usain’s record before pulling a hammy at the 70 metre point, it’s frustrating. You were so close! You nearly made it!
This brings me back to Nolan. He reached near perfection throughout his Batman trilogy. At points. The Dark Knight remains a great film, largely because it is taken from the grasp of Batman and not allowed to descend into atypical comic book theatrics. Sure there’s great action but the real mastery is in trying to decode a undecodable villain and watching his plans unfold. Plans which ultimately have no message or purpose other than to satisfy his passing, insane whim. But then remember what Nolan started in Batman Begins. This fascinatingly dark portrayal of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Gotham’s finest anti-hero started brilliantly but got to a point where it didn’t know how to finish. In the end it succumbed to genre normality. It went conventional and the finale remains disappointing. Indeed The Dark Knight Rises also went that way (although its insistence on retreading too much of the previous film left me cold throughout in truth).
Marvel’s more conventional all-encompassing family fare have all lacked a strong villain. This in turn has meant that the finales have always fallen a bit flat. Iron Man was genre-redefining brilliance up to a point. It has paved the way and written the rule book on how that particular lineage should be made. The formula remains constant, with few deviations and the success undoubted, but like the first film, every subsequent film, and crossover piece has also gone a bit flat toward the end, and no amount of perpetually CGI laden onslaught (or relentless cameos) can cover a weak villain or lack of ideas in how to finish. In the end it’s as if the option of simple crowd appeasement is the easiest and most pertinent option. Any deeper questions raised or opened for discussion get lost.
Do these films perhaps aim too high to begin with? Or maybe the key work should be done on the final third first. In principal Logan had it right. It built slowly, taking us inevitably to the final showdown. It just took an unexpected, and not entirely welcome road. It turned what was an Auteur film to a point, into something that adheres to studio or audience demand. It caved and gave in for me. Ultimately this also left me somewhat cold at the bowing out of Stewart (in particular) and Jackman’s characters. As neither survives the film (as expected) I thought I would feel it more, but both exits get sort of lost in this descent to ordinary.
I look at something like John Wick: Chapter 2. This was all round more satisfying to me. It didn’t reach the same sort of dramatic heights as Logan does for an hour, no. However it set its bar at a level. It roared up to that bar and never dropped from it. It stood by its conviction and never deviated from the path. It also built gradually from 4th gear, right up to top gear with a brilliantly visceral finale and superb denouement to lead us nicely into the next. It pitched a four star movie and stuck to it (for me). Ultimately for me, both Logan and Wick 2 are four star movies, but the latter leaves me more satisfied because it didn’t drop the ball. Logan pitched for more but let it slip through its adamantium claws.
There is a real art in finishing an action film. It’s the hardest thing to do. Even if you get the first part right, it’s that final lasting impression you leave that is hard. So many over the years have opened big and then lacked a final to match. I remember GoldenEye being brilliant from the beginning, having a fantastic middle section but then going limp toward the end. It also happened to a lesser extent in Casino Royale (To be fair this is a Bond Trope that’s the norm and not the exception). Maybe my view is against the norm. Skyfall went for something a little different throughout, with its more Bond-esque tropes coming in the opening two thirds, before a Straw Dogs (and Home Alone…) inspired ending that was a point of contention for most, but brought the film home nicely for me, for the very fact it didn’t fall into the expected. Die Hard 4 wasn’t as hopeless as many remember, but many remember it being wholly ridiculous in the final third (up to that point it was a solid enough sequel). When John McClane rides a CGI F-40, you start looking at the exit door.
Ultimately I’m bemoaning a film I actually liked, and in those points of greatness it reached, it put me in the position of wanting to write this. An Adam Sandler film jumping all over the place or ending on a bum note matters little as the rest of the film is undoubtedly pants anyway, but it’s frustrating when you have a film hitting such great highs, only to pull you out of the world. It brings to mind Dennis Bergkamp. His stand out goal in a hat-trick against Leicester (about 20 years ago now). He perfectly controls a long ball out of the air inside the box, flicks it over a defenders head, and then one touch and a shot. He rifles it past the keeper in the top corner. Sublime (note: not…repeat not, an Arsenal fan). What if he’d smashed that final shot into row Z?
Agree, disagree? Any films you feel lost a grip in the final third? Let us know in the comments below…