In his earlier work on the franchise with the mostly-successful The Wolverine, director James Mangold was saddled with making a film set in Japan where a stoic hero with knives in his knuckles fights Yakuza assassins and finding a way to make it fit the commercially-necessary PG-13 rating. Logan immediately disabuses the viewer from bloodless, inconsequential action with an opening sequence that finds Logan chasing off murderous car thieves by hacking them apart. Violence has ramifications here: spurting, maiming consequences. With this newfound freedom, Mangold isn't ravenous or gleeful in showcasing what a man and girl with knife hands can do, but it's the logical extension of something the franchise has always tiptoed around. It also allows for the 'oh shit' moments that action films so often traffic in, giving extra oomph to an already powerful story.
The brutality the heroes enact on those who would attack them is well-placed within the world of Logan. It fits with an environment that, through several layers of detail, has become crueler in every facet. The human trafficking and experimentation that Gabriela witnessed and Laura experienced is bleak enough, but the exploitation is not only happening the shadows. The presence of heavily armed, cybernetic private militias signify the breaking down of power outside of governmental structures. An interlude at a farm is tinged with lawlessness and might-makes-right domination. In a harbinger of real-world inevitability, the semi's that clog the highways have been replaced by robot drivers with no directive to slow down for any reason, one more unfeeling and implacable hazard to be avoided. The protagonists themselves are not immune to the rot at the heart of the world. Logan's being poisoned from within, Xavier's powers have been corrupted by decay, and Laura has been deliberately turned from a child into a shrieking killing machine. This is a bleak picture, and a theoretically plausible one that has turned people into cogs left to fend for themselves.
Into this corporatist dystopia steps Logan as a Western anti-hero, the man trying to do One Good Thing in a fallen world. Mangold and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green make overt and covert references to Westerns, particularly Shane and The Searchers, placing Logan firmly in that tradition. The world of the film has largely fallen back to the frontier anyways, so the homages are appropriate. More Western-oriented than superhero-oriented, Logan is a simple story that works on a gut level, just as so many of those mid-century Westerns do. Instead of world-annihilating super-villains, the stakes are as simple as getting from Point A to Point B, doing an obvious right along the way while evading an obvious wrong.
A plot so elemental might get overlooked or dismissed without memorable characterization, but Logan doesn't have that problem either. Jackman has had years to shape Logan into the character he is in his titular and final film, and he is powerful here as a man facing his physical and emotional limitations. Earlier X-Men films have had to sideline Stewart's Xavier, as he's too powerful a mutant to leave on the board, but with his disability, that's not a concern here. Stewart is finally given a chance to do more than just look the part, and he is wonderful as a sad old man clinging to his goodness and his sanity. As Laura, Keen is a true find, able to hold her own with Jackman and Stewart while also being wholly credible as a Tasmanian Devil capable of inflicting as much righteous violence as her protector. Merchant provides a weak and tragic character searching for his courage, Rodriguez exudes passion and desperation in the face of injustice, and Pierce is a recognizable villain, an amoral man taking a payday. In keeping the cast small, Logan allows many of its players to make significant impacts.
With its visceral action, thrilling narrative, and endearing characters, Logan is making the argument for being a very good film. What bumps it into the stratosphere is another homage it makes towards one of my favorite films, The Iron Giant. Laura meets Logan and Xavier as a traumatized and barely verbal killing machine, but her surrogate family of gruff father and warm grandfather give her a way out of that path, the path she was bred for by Transigen. Like The Iron Giant, she is taught that genes or design are not destiny, that she has a choice in how she lives and moves through the world. This is an ideally American stance to take, the idealistic view posited by Frederick Jackson Turner's feelings on the frontier that has shaped so much of the national character. Mangold frames his story against a cold and mercenary country, where the goodness is draining out of it day by day. Logan resonates by asserting that different choices can be made, that evil can be undone, that people are capable of remaking themselves, that it's never too late, that there is still time. That kind of affirmation makes Logan more than a great superhero film, transcending the trappings of its genre and achieving escape velocity to become one of the best films of 2017. A-