Hugh Jackman returns as the adamantium-clawed mutant Logan in The Wolverine. Picking up after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Logan's quest this time sends him to Japan. Having been lured there at the behest of a figure from his past, Logan is promised immortality – but soon finds himself betrayed and embroiled in a deadly conflict. It's not the most Earth-shattering comic book movie in the world but Jackman is typically charismatic and director James Mangold makes excellent use of the exotic Japanese locations. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the film is the dynamic and striking score by Marco Beltrami. It's the composer's second score for the director – Beltrami was Oscar-nominated for his terrific work on Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma remake. And although his work on The Wolverine isn't quite as memorable (it requires a fair degree of patience), the score nevertheless proves that Beltrami is one of the finest, least heralded composers in the business.
Beltrami is the latest composer to join the X-Men franchise, which has had a very spotty musical history. Michael Kamen provided the score for Bryan Singer's original movie back in 2000 (reportedly toiling under very difficult circumstances); then Singer's regular collaborator John Ottman took over for X2 in 2003. X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006 was graced with a grandiose, bombastic score by John Powell; and 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine was scored by Harry Gregson Williams. The quality of the individual scores is expectedly inconsistent. But fortunately, Beltrami's is in the upper echelons, alongside Powell and Kamen's efforts.
In recent years, no small thanks to Hans Zimmer's Batman scores, it's become fashionable to score superhero movies in textural, ambient fashion. Blockbuster scores, and in particular superhero ones, are now far more self-conscious than they once were, and it almost seems like a weakness to overtly manipulate the audience through music. Sad as it is to admit, the days of Danny Elfman's Gothic majesty are long gone.
But what's heartening about The Wolverine is that Beltrami continues the textural stylistics laid down by Zimmer whilst also extending his own musical voice through a varied and engaging soundscape. It's a slow-burner of a score, introducing a thematic motif for Logan himself that gradually develops and becomes more prominent later on. It may initially sound fairly bland but there's actually quite a lot going on. The score kicks off with the mournful, desolate phrase for Logan himself in "A Walk in the Woods." Initially heard on just two notes, the theme broadens throughout the score in a manner much more impressive and thoughtful than that of the recent Batman scores. Things continue in the dirge-like "Threnody for Nagasaki", which contains plenty of challenging string material. The clattering percussion heard in the second half of the track is indicative of the Japanese influences that Beltrami will liberally yet tastefully weave throughout the rest of the score.
"Euthanasia" is similarly bleak and cold but things pick up in the terrific "Logan's Run" in which the Asian elements properly come to the forefront – gongs, percussion, chimes and plucked instruments come together to construct a brilliantly dynamic piece of action music. Beltrami's rhythmic flair is immediately recognisable; it's one of the things that's always earmarked this composer, from horror scores like Scream to action ones like I, Robot. Logan's theme gets a noble statement on strings in "The Offer". In the compelling "Arrival at the Temple", Beltrami works hard not to overdo the Japanese stylistics, instead enveloping listeners in a compelling blend of gongs, chimes and light percussion. It's once more into the breach again in the enormously exciting "Funeral Fight", in which Beltrami's typically dynamic percussion work and growling brass reach furious proportions. "Two Handed" is quite lovely in its own subtle way, moving from subtle Japanese influences to subdued variations on Logan's theme that are quite affecting. After all, Beltrami is intent on scoring Logan's human side, and not just the feral mutant.
The enormously exciting but sadly brief "Bullet Train" does what its name suggests: unleash massive orchestral forces that suggest the speed of Japan's legendary railway. "The Snare" offers a moment of introspection before the portentous "Abduction" ushers in some hugely dramatic and forbidding work for the full orchestra. There's even a slight trace of a harmonica, which seems to suggest that Beltrami is treating Logan's adventure as a fish-out-of-water western – a nicely witty touch! The harmonica appears again in the second half of "Trusting".
"Ninja Quiet" is an atonal bit of suspense building and "Kantana Surgery" builds a further sense of tension through doomy timpani beats and moody strings. The track eventually builds into a challenging blend of shrill strings that move upwards through their registers, layered on top of which is more oriental percussion – the music accompanies a particularly painful self-surgery scene and the music mirrors the action very effectively! Logan's central theme then gets its most defiant airing thus far in "The Wolverine"; the music mirrors the fact that Logan has finally come to terms with his feral, clawed identity, setting up the dramatic end game to the score.
The hugely dramatic finale to the score kicks off with "The Hidden Fortress" with its monumental brass chords and fleeting harmonica injection. This eventually builds into a heroic statement of Logan's theme on sweeping strings; this is when Beltrami's sparing usage of the theme pays off, as it's only at the end of the film, and consequently the score, that Logan fully allows himself to come off the leash. The duo of "Silver Samurai" and "Sword of Vengeance" then provides the score's action highlight, the former with its Scream/Mimic-esque squealing horn/choppy string rhythms, and the latter with its increasingly gargantuan brass patterns. This eventually moves into a wonderfully rousing rendition of Logan's theme for the full orchestra – at this point, Beltrami's music solidifies the character's identity properly.
This then allows for a low-key end to the score, beginning with a tender rendition of Logan's theme in "Dreams" and continuing with the soft percussion and heartfelt strings of "Goodbye Mariko". The main theme then rises on the strength of the full orchestra in "Where To?" where a propulsive string/brass backing and percussion undercurrent brings the score to a purposeful conclusion as Logan looks ahead to his next adventure. The tentative, understated "Whole Step Haiku" then concludes the score with a pensive arrangement of Logan's theme, in which the deliberately placed harmonica chords leave an open-ended sense of mystery, reinforcing the western stylistics that Beltrami had played around with earlier.
The Wolverine is Beltrami's fifth score of 2013 following The Sessions, A Good Day to Die Hard, Warm Bodies and World War Z. That's a hugely impressive and diverse run of scores, and even if The Wolverine is the most challenging, demanding out of all of them, it nevertheless cements Beltrami's reputation as an outstanding, intelligent composer. It's not a score that offers easy pleasures; uncompromisingly dark for the most part, and with the romantic and action-packed moments spread out over a long album, it may put off those fond of Beltrami's more accessible scores like Hellboy and I, Robot.
Those who persevere with it however will discover a score that both belongs to and overcomes the in-vogue Remote Control approach to comic-book movies. The theme for Logan himself may appear simplistic and forgettable, but Beltrami is a composer skilled at building on apparently simple ideas over the course of a soundtrack album. And that's exactly what he does here, rewarding the patient listener with the climactic heroic emergence of the theme in its fullest form. Add to that the Japanese elements that skirt cliché due to their understated nature and you have a compelling, modern-day action score. It may not have the melodic highlights of The Sessions; the relentless energy of A Good Day to Die Hard; the enjoyably grungy texture of Warm Bodies; or the mesmerizingly brutal soundscape of World War Z. But The Wolverine is nevertheless a contemporary superhero score done with considerably more flair and thought than most.
Note that the American and international album covers differ and also have different track titles for certain cues.