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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hugh Jackman battles Ninja warriors, trounces a monster Samurai and rescues a Japanese heiress but still manages to show a softer, vulnerable side of the comic book superhero in "The Wolverine," the newest film in the X-Men series.
The movie, which opens in U.S. theaters on Friday, marks the sixth time the 44-year-old Australian actor, who seems as comfortable singing and dancing on Broadway as defeating bad guys on the big screen, is portraying the silver-clawed, self-healing, century-old mutant.
"I am enjoying playing him more than ever. We are focusing on this character and on his journey," said Jackman, who earned a best actor Oscar nomination for his role in the 2012 historical musical "Les Miserables."
"This is a real, true character story."
The film is the second in the highly profitable X-Men series that focuses solely on Wolverine. It follows 2009's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which had mixed reviews but pulled in more than $374 million worldwide.
The first five X-Men movies earned a total of more than $1.89 billion at the global box office, and the series will continue in 2014 with "X-Men: Days of Future Past.
"Wolverine" is expected to open with $70 million in U.S. and Canadian ticket sales, according to the Boxoffice.com website. That would rank as the eighth biggest debut this year but below the start of its predecessor, "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," which opened with $85 million in May 2009, according to Box Office Mojo.
In the latest film, Jackman's down-and-out Wolverine character Logan is lured to Japan by a feisty, punk-style martial arts expert, played by newcomer Rila Fukushima, to bid goodbye to a dying, powerful Japanese industrialist he had saved decades earlier.
Wolverine barely has time to adjust to modern-day Japan with its bustling traffic, neon signs and sleek buildings before he is thrust into an ancient world of rituals and customs. He battles Yakuza criminals, Ninja warriors and the villainous mutant Viper, and saves Mariko, the mysterious heiress and his love interest, played by Japanese model Tao Okamoto.
Jackman believes Japan was the perfect setting to expose Wolverine's vulnerabilities and to push the character physically and emotionally.
"He's a natural outsider and I think the customs and the atmosphere and the history and Samurai codes of honors and obeying, and all that stuff is the opposite of Wolverine," he said.
For American director James Mangold, a fan of Japanese films, "The Wolverine" was an opportunity to explore the country's culture and history and to pit Wolverine against formidable foes.
"We weren't at the budget level of some of the other summer movies and I didn't want to compete on the epic scale. I wanted to compete on the intensity scale," said Mangold, whose credits include co-writing and directing the Oscar-winning 2005 Johnny Cash film "Walk the Line" and the 2007 Western "3:10 to Yuma."
Whether it was a fight on top of a speeding bullet train, a battle with the giant Silver Samurai or a love scene, Mangold said his goal "was to try to make it feel more real."
Jackman sees Wolverine as an anti-hero, whose powers come from an emotional place. He said it's not Wolverine's steel claws, healing powers or weird hair that is his defining characteristic. It's his rage.
"There is unresolved anger in all these characters, all of them," Jackman said about the comic book characters. "They somehow use that dysfunction, that pain, that indecision, all the things that are within become their strength, and become their defining quality. With Wolverine, as you see in this film, it's as much a burden as it is a superpower or a great thing."
Additional reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Mary Milliken and Bill Trott