With this past month’s The Wolverine, which functions as both a standalone Wolverine story and a bridge between the ill-conceived X-Men: The Last Stand and the much-anticipated X-Men: Days of Future Past, the series has been taken in yet another musical direction by horror ace Marco Beltrami. It’s hard to have a beef with Beltrami for doing this, though, for James Mangold’s latest film removes the title character from his familiar surroundings and places him in an entirely unfamiliar environment: modern Japan.
Working on eight films this year ranging from action (A Good Day to Die Hard) to horror (World War Z) to drama (the upcoming The Homesman), Marco Beltrami has been consistently proving himself to be one of the most prolific and adaptable composers working today. In comparison to Beltrami’s recent efforts, The Wolverine will likely come across as the smaller, slightly more aggressive and appropriately more ethnically-charged cousin of his score for World War Z.
Before Beltrami, only Harry Gregson-Williams conceived of any really significant thematic material for the franchise’s increasingly focalized anti-hero Wolverine (or "the" Wolverine, whatever fits your fancy). For The Wolverine, Beltrami constructs two main identities for the character, both more challenging than Gregson Williams’. The first, heard most prominently in "A Walk in the Woods" and "Whole Step Haiku", is a two-note, rising motif on Asian woodwinds over an ambient wash. This particular motif, which will incite inevitable comparison to Hans Zimmer’s two-note identity for Batman in the Dark Knight trilogy, drums up little warmth for the character and is rather anonymous, but it adequately conveys Logan’s isolation in the film’s opening scenes as he roams, hermit-like in the rural Yukon. On the other hand, when tackled by a full orchestra in the track "The Wolverine", the theme becomes a dramatic, stakes-raising mechanism of World War Z proportions, imbued with an even more tragic tone than that of the theme’s simpler incarnations. Given the first theme’s simplicity and moroseness, however, the score’s sense of warmth will have to come from Beltrami’s second identity for the character, heard in the highlight cue "Where to?". A slightly more optimistic effort given the overall downbeat and challenging nature of the score, "Where to?" is a sufficiently stirring bit of overdue heroism for Wolverine. Dominated by strings and brass over expected chopping ostinatos and a light electronic beat, it’s nothing you haven’t heard before and you can bet it won’t be cropping up in future X-Men films, but it’s certainly worth listening to as it is The Wolverine’s most accessible piece of music. If not for "Whole Step Haiku", it would have also been a nice way to end the album. What’s more, the theme recurs softly in "Two Handed" to infuse warmth into a brief moment of bonding between Logan and the young officer Yashida, as well as in "The Offer" and to inform the short, tender track "Goodbye Mariko".
In addition to the material for the titular character, Beltrami provides a minor, suitably menacing motif for the constantly on-trail gang of Yakuza thugs. Heard at 2:29 and 3:09 in "Logan’s Run" as well as at 0:36 and 2:09 in "Bullet Train" and 1:06 in "Abduction", the motif intimidates in the lower registers of the string section (often accompanied by taiko drums) but never really builds to more than a brief reprise to denote the gang’s presence.
Apart from these more recognizable motifs, Beltrami’s score is mostly propelled by aggressive action material that often crosses the line into a concoction you’re more likely to hear in one of his horror outings. As a result, large-scale dissonance and thrashing unpleasantness abound here. Percussive rhythms on taiko drums add a bit of ethnic propulsion to "Logan’s Run", a fast paced chase cue that, given its reliance on percussion, is more rhythmically exhilarating than thematically interesting. This rhythmic percussiveness returns in "Funeral Fight" in addition to some orchestral dissonance for the slow-motion sequences in which Logan experiences a gunshot without the aid of his regenerative capabilities. Punctuated by quiet ambient tones, some ferocious orchestral work drives the thrilling "Bullet Train" as well as the similarly ferocious "Silver Samurai", two of the more listenable action cues. The "Bullet Train" rhythm can also be found towards the end of "Kantana Surgery" (I’m no samurai master, but isn't it spelled "katana"?), albeit clouded in a good deal of abrasive, orchestral dissonance. Unlike the similarly titled track in World War Z, "Ninja Quiet" is relatively subdued, especially compared to the other action cues, relegating its brutal aggressiveness to the lowest registers of the orchestra with some electronic pulses to denote tense sneaking around.
One of the more confounding aspects of Marco Beltrami’s The Wolverine is the addition of a harmonica to the ensemble. Sliding up and down the scale like the electric guitar in World War Z’s "Wales", the harmonica first crops up briefly in "Euthanasia", then in the latter half of "Trusting" and the beginning of "The Hidden Fortress" over hostile, orchestral blasts. I’m not saying that it’s not an effective addition to the ensemble, but we've come to associate the harmonica with concepts that are just about as far away from modern Japan and Wolverine as one can get (the latter half of "Abduction" comes across as The Wolverine meets Once Upon a Time in the West), so it’s a little perplexing as to why Belrami chose to use it here.
In addition to the action cues and themes discussed, there are a few lesser identities that are also worthy of note. The angst-ridden, dramatic burst at 0:28 in "Abduction" is a great bit of strained boldness, as is the closing of the fantastic "Sword of Vengeance", which will remind slightly of Beltrami’s thematic material for humanity in World War Z and bits of Dario Marianelli’s V for Vendetta.
It should be clear from the get-go that Marco Beltrami’s The Wolverine is neither a straight action score nor an exercise in traditional "superhero" fare. In fact, The Wolverine makes much better use of Beltrami’s horror mastery than his action capabilities, resulting in a challenging creation with little respite for warmth, but a few highlights of large-scale ferocity nonetheless. The strings shriek and the brass blasts and though it ultimately alternates between harshness and somberness, it’s an appropriate balance for the film’s somewhat dark tone. Furthermore, the addition of taiko drums, a few Asian woodwinds, and brief koto appearances add to the Japanese flavor of the score and hammer home the underlying theme of the "modern Rōnin story". Though the whole product will not garner too many repeated listens and may prove too taxing for some (just count the number of times I've used a variation of the word "dissonance"), Beltrami’s The Wolverine still boasts some great thematic cues like “Where to?” and “Abduction” as well as vicious action cues like “Logan’s Run”, “Bullet Train” and “Sword of Vengeance”. Another solid effort from Marco Beltrami that effectively puts a different spin on your typical comic book score.