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Mangold's 'Wolverine' saga goes down swinging 

It's Jackman's last ride.

click to enlarge LAURA AND 'LOGAN': Keen (left) is keen in her debut, while Jackman bows out marvelously.
  • LAURA AND 'LOGAN': Keen (left) is keen in her debut, while Jackman bows out marvelously.

If, as reported, "Logan" represents the final appearance of Hugh Jackman as Logan — a.k.a. Wolverine, the nigh-indestructible superhero with the retractable Freddy Krueger claws — then let the record show he went down swinging. More specifically, slashing chests, severing limbs and punching those adamantium knives through suckers' skulls like a pitchfork impaling pumpkins. This is an exceptionally gnarly depiction of the rigors of superhero-ing, one with a body count that spins like a pinball scoreboard.

The success of "Deadpool" a year ago must've convinced 20th Century Fox to turn up the ultraviolence: This chapter of the long-lived "X-Men" franchise is the least kid-friendly of the lot to date, despite its revolving around Logan's relationship with an 11-or-so-year-old mutant named Laura (Dafne Keen, in a big-screen debut for the books). "Logan" unspools more like a pulp novel sprung to bloody life, one hell of a ride even if you couldn't be bothered to yawn at most superhero movies. In its structure and its tight cast, it's among the simplest movies in the genre. Rather than getting bogged down in a universe of names and new characters, writer/director James Mangold opts for Western-style simplicity. The payoff is an actual piece of filmmaking, rather than a feature-length commercial for Halloween costumes and Xbox games.

For once in these films, the intrigue winnows down to one new, tiny dervish of a character. Anyone who caught a glimpse of the trailers already knows this tyke Laura sports some sort of Wolverine-style knuckle-knives and can zip around perforating goons' faces with the best of 'em. But Logan, scratching out a living as a limo driver and trying to keep to himself, remains the crappiest father figure in the history of the comics genre. Jackman plays this version of the title character — the ninth movie appearance as Wolverine — as salty, duty-bound and physically vulnerable, literally limping throughout two hours that all but mutter I'm getting too old for this shit. He's barely scratching by and sacking away a few grand so that he and his oldest friend and mentor can buy a boat to live at sea.

Speaking of, Patrick Stewart is back, probably for a final time, as Charles Xavier, also deep in years. The film takes place in 2029, when Xavier corrects a goon who calls him an octogenarian that he is, in fact, a nonagenarian. Both of the men show their considerable wear, and in their dreary settings — largely the Texas borderlands and the dusty roof of Mexico — everything looks sun-blistered and desiccated. Xavier, losing his (exceptionally powerful) mind, is confined to a huge industrial tank where Logan drops by every so often to dose him with meds that keep him from essentially detonating a psychic dirty bomb in his senescence. Tending to the good professor in the desert is Caliban (Stephen Merchant, charmingly), who can detect mutants, an ability that he compares to being a truffle-sniffing pig but which adds a dimension to the manhunts that dominate the film's middle.

And, yes, you knew there'd be a manhunt. A hallmark of the "X-Men" films is the extraordinary abilities of its stars, pitted against spooks/scientists who fear/desire said powers. This time it's a dude with a gold tooth and a robotic hand (a Southernly Boyd Holbrook) who's trying to track down Laura. Good luck with all that, pal. The kid, Laura, she's a dang force — and Keen is a dynamo charged with carrying the swagger of a feral lab-built tween who goes from bouncing a ball in a parking lot to, one scene later, rolling a freshly decapitated head across the dusty ground. Bilingual and utterly ferocious, she looks like the future of a franchise whose stars are putting themselves out to pasture after almost two solid decades of playing pulpy heroes. After such a long run, Stewart and Jackman manage to pull off the impossible: Somehow, they're leaving us actually wanting more.

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