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'Logan' is no country for old X-Men (spoiler-free review)

While the climax veers towards standard superhero fare, "Logan" is a mature, brutal exploration of a hero at the end of a long and lonely road.

Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox

"Logan" takes you in close. Close enough to see the scars.

That's the greatest strength and boldest choice made in the ninth and latest film to star Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Only, in the dirty, dusty world of 2029, he's not Wolverine any more. Set more than a decade after the last time he teamed up with the X-Men to stave off the apocalypse, "Logan" is preoccupied with the man, not the hero.

Writer and director James Mangold was at the helm of Logan's previous outing, "The Wolverine", and even then he seemed more concerned with getting under the character's skin than shoving him through a by-the-numbers plot. This time around he's not constrained by the need to shoehorn in a big cinematic boss fight or keep it to a PG rating. As a result, "Logan" sings. Granted, it sings in the rich, gravelled tones of Johnny Cash's "Hurt", but it sings nonetheless.

"Logan" is steeped in those Western influences. Not only in the bleak, dust-swirled desert landscapes that dominate the film, but in the pained redemptive arc. It's sad and artful in a way that you just don't get in superhero films. We've had it hammered home in previous films that Logan was turned into a weapon. But this is the first time that gets explored. There's fantastic action beats, but don't expect blockbuster Marvel movie flair. This is about the pensive, sorrowful and broken hero at the end of a long road.

Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox

The first thing that strikes you about "Logan" is the blood. A vulnerable, limping Logan takes hits, stumbles and lashes out. There's a hard weight to the fights. Limbs are hacked off, heads are eviscerated. Thanks to that R rating, Mangold and Jackman hold none of it back when the claws are out.

The next is Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman's two-man act. Never has the reluctant hero and tired mentor dynamic been better than it is here. Stewart has served the X-Men movies as the very model of Professor X, and seeing him old, broken and beaten is nothing short of heartbreaking.

So much of the film hangs on Stewart, Jackman and newcomer Dafne Keen, playing the young mutant Laura. Keen holds her own with the two veterans, deftly playing to the trio's fractured family dynamic. It's her tightrope walk between innocence and intensity that sells Logan's journey in this movie.

Ben Rothstein/20th Century Fox

It's unclear where (or even if) this fits into the main X-Men continuity, but the further it stays away from that, the better. "Logan" tells a contained story. It builds on what's come before, but it calls out the four-colour comic-book heroism as something from a bygone era.

If this is truly Jackman's farewell to the character, he's bowing out at the top of his game. Rarely do you find cause to connect this deeply with the lead in a comic-book movie. And that's because it's not about saving the world. Or even saving a city. After 17 years, "Logan" has given us a Wolverine that hurts. It's given us a superhero movie about saving yourself.

"Logan" opens in theatres in the UK on 1 March, in Australia on 2 March and in the US on 3 March.