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And now for his sixth act...

After three X-Men movies and a spin-off (plus a cameo), Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine heads to Japan, where he fights samurai, falls for a rich girl, and eats a whole lot of chicken

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THE WOLVERINE ? JULY 26

Friday afternoon on the Sydney set of The Wolverine means one thing: Hugh Jackman is passing out lottery tickets. The actor made this an end-of-the-week tradition on his shoots years ago — and not just to show off the egalitarian ethos of his native Australia. It’s penance, he says, for never remembering crew members’ names.

Of course, Jackman has never been known as the type of actor who slinks off to his trailer at ”Cut!” And today is no exception. In a nondescript back alley that’s been transformed into a bustling Japanese street filled with sushi joints and strip clubs, he seems to be everywhere: glad-handing guests, consulting with director James Mangold, breezily giving tips to costar and first-time actress Tao Okamoto, and occasionally paying mind to boggled residents of surrounding high-rise apartment buildings. ”Ah, party flat!” he yells to one sozzled group, vamping from above in hopes of a wave. ”What’s for dinner?”

A few hours later, after the sun has set and the locals have gone inside, Jackman films a scene in which his character, Logan, falls from the balcony of the Love Hotel, a seedy stopover where he and Mariko (Okamoto) — a sheltered Japanese rich girl who ends up on the run with him for much of the film — are hiding from criminals. He’s suspended over the street from a wire and dropped repeatedly to the ground, where thugs pummel him and a rain machine remorselessly sprays him with cold water. It doesn’t look like fun. In fact, it looks like it hurts. Movie stars need the crew on their side in these kinds of situations. Now that lottery handout makes sense — it’s like a wise karmic insurance policy.

The Wolverine (not yet rated) — and the immortal, self-healing mutant at its center — could use some good fortune too. The last time Logan flew solo at the multiplex, the result was 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and we all know how that went. The first stand-alone feature and origin story in Fox’s phenomenally successful X-Men series was no box office dud, but fans and critics had their (non-adamantium) claws out. The story was weak, they complained. The casting was off; the mythology felt muddled.

In short, says Jackman, ”I had something to prove, and we could have done better. Somehow the first Wolverine movie ended up looking like the fourth X-Men — just with different characters. I left unsure if we’d achieved our goal, which was to make sure people understood my character. This movie will really get to his core. So…” He sighs dramatically. ”Fingers crossed we’ve done it this time. I’m pretty confident we have.”

He has reason to be. Fox gave The Wolverine a coveted summer-superhero berth and an Oscar-caliber director in Mangold. Could this franchise — which, if not battered, is most definitely bruised — heal as spectacularly as Logan himself?

The Wolverine takes Logan to Japan, where he’s been lured by Yashida, a man he’d saved from certain death in a Nagasaki POW camp just before it was blown apart by the bomb. From his deathbed, Yashida — now a wealthy tycoon — offers a teasing proposition: He’s found a way to make Logan mortal. Still, nothing comes without a price, and soon Wolverine is clawing his way through a tangle of underworld crime, romantic power plays, and enemies that include two mutants (longtime Marvel baddies Silver Samurai and Viper make their franchise debut, played by newcomers Will Yun Lee and Svetlana Khodchenkova, respectively), a band of samurai warriors, the crafty yakuza (a.k.a. the Japanese Mafia), and a seemingly endless supply of ninjas.

Jackman first read this particular story in 1999, on the set of the first X-Men, where comic books were considered contraband. ”Back then,” recalls the actor, ”comic-book films were dead.” Fearful his actors would be wrongly influenced if they were too focused on the source rather than their scripts, director Bryan Singer banned comics from the set. Which, inevitably, meant they were everywhere. ”Through the trailer door would come comics,” says Jackman, who got his hands on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s limited-edition 1982 comic series Wolverine, which first mythologized the character (and explained his famous fits of ”berserker rage”) with an artistic combination of pathos and pluck. He told producer Lauren Shuler Donner he wanted to make it someday.

Years later, Christopher McQuarrie (who’d done uncredited work on the original X-Men and won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects) wrote the first draft of a script based on Claremont and Miller’s acclaimed cycle as a solo vehicle for Jackman’s X-Men character. Darren Aronofsky was set to direct it until he dropped out in 2011, citing his desire to spend more time with his family. Eventually Mangold — an idiosyncratic genre-hopper who coaxed Oscar-winning performances from Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted) and Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) — signed on, bringing writers Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) and Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report) to polish the story.

It’s a decidedly darker tale — and that makes Jackman happy. ”Wolverine is really not a good guy at all,” he reasons. ”Well…he’s good, but he’s not nice. We had work to do to really show that.” Mangold, who first collaborated with the star on 2001’s time-travel rom-com Kate & Leopold, decided the film’s action should take place long after all existing entries in the franchise. ”Everyone’s gone,” says the director. ”They’re all dead — there’s nothing left of the Academy, the X-Men, or the women he’s loved. The challenge of going forever as opposed to facing what we all fear — death, illness — is your prison sentence. It just doesn’t stop. That’s what needed to be at this movie’s core.”

But there’s still one familiar face: Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey — who ”died” at Logan’s hands in a climactic scene of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand — appeared in The Wolverine‘s trailers, prompting rampant fan speculation about her role. Look for her to play a part as a ”shadow presence” who pops up to mock, comfort, and advise Logan, much as Number Six tortured Gaius Baltar on Battlestar Galactica. And what about those reports that Mangold traveled to Montreal earlier this month to film additional scenes with Patrick Stewart that would ostensibly set up audiences for next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past? ”I don’t think I want to comment,” he replies, before possibly confirming it anyway: ”It doesn’t necessarily have to do with what’s inside this movie.”

For all the exotic flair that The Wolverine‘s Pacific Rim setting adds to the film, very little of it was actually shot in Japan. The snow-covered Japanese mountain village where Logan encounters that gang of ninjas was built from scratch on a parking lot near a BMX track at Sydney’s verdant Olympic Park. There, as the clock approached midnight one warm evening last November, Jackman was again being tossed around with abandon as he filmed a scene in which ninjas capture Logan in a net that’s being pulled by a scooter. Over and over, the actor took his mark before being tackled, shoved into the trap, and dragged along a path covered with faux flakes. And again, it didn’t look all that fun.

Mortality may be what poor Wolverine craves most in this world — at the very least, it would be a nice break from his grinding, Groundhog Day-like existence. But it’s very much a reality for Jackman, now 44 and getting a little fatigued by the seven-chicken-breasts-a-day diet required during filming to maintain his awe-inspiring Wolverine physique. The Wolverine will mark the actor’s fifth time sporting that iconic white tank top and silly hairdo in the billion-dollar X-Men film franchise, which is roaring toward its 15th anniversary with another installment on the way and shows no signs of slowing. (Well, technically it’s his sixth time if you count his cameo in 2011’s X-Men: First Class.) No superhero in modern memory has been played by the same actor in as many films.

When EW spoke to Jackman last month, he was still at it. Calling from the Montreal set of X-Men: Days of Future Past, where he’ll be clawing the scenery through August, he admitted to ”having déjá vu all over the place. I’m back playing Wolverine — with Bryan Singer, Ian McKellen, and Patrick Stewart. It’s great to be in the middle of a big reunion.” But will it be the last one? The Wolverine producer Hutch Parker says the idea of eventually replacing Jackman, or perhaps rebooting the franchise with a new actor á la The Amazing Spider-Man and Man of Steel, ”feels somewhat blasphemous.” (As for the possibility of an appearance in The Avengers 2, Parker demurs: ”I don’t even know how to handicap that. But it would certainly be exciting to see.”)

Still, game as he is — and Jackman, who comfortably flits between Broadway stages, film sets, and any other performance arena that will have him, is always game — the actor hints that this may be it. Asked if he’d play Wolverine again, he replies, ”I don’t know. I’m not sure. I wasn’t even sure after the first [stand-alone] film if I would do another. I won’t say never, because I’m still loving it. But there would have to be a pretty compelling reason.” After all, he adds, ”there’s only so much chicken breast I can keep eating.”

The Movies Behind the Mutant

FROM WESTERNS TO A JAPANESE ROMANCE, DIRECTOR JAMES MANGOLD SHARES SOME CLASSICS THAT INSPIRED THE WOLVERINE

Shane (1953)

Alan Ladd’s sad-eyed loner rides into a Wyoming town and gets drawn into violent conflict — much like Wolverine on his Japanese sojourn. ”Logan lends himself to a Western treatment. Like Shane, he can never really have love or settle down, and is always wrestling with his identity.”

Floating Weeds (1959)

Mangold has long championed the work of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu; perhaps no film on his list better informed his visual approach to Logan’s time in Japan than this drama about reconnecting with abandoned love. ”We have tons of rainstorms in our film as homage.”

The French Connection (1971)

The thriller stars Gene Hackman as Popeye Doyle, a detective out to crack a drug ring. ”Logan may be immortal, but he can’t fly. He can’t swing his way through a city. Like Popeye, I wanted him living in a world bound by gravity and the limitations of his own power.”

Chinatown (1974)

Roman Polanski’s landmark noir covers government chicanery, committed detective work, and one very screwed-up father-daughter relationship. ”The Wolverine functions, in many ways, as a mystery: Logan is a stranger in a strange land, trying to figure out if he’s being played.”

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Clint Eastwood’s brutal revisionist Western about a Missouri farmer staggering through loss after the Civil War was the first movie Mangold told Jackman to watch when he signed on. Similar to Wales, ”Logan is rich with regret, anger, rage — yet a desire to do good.”