In my review for 2000's "X-Men," I wrote about its inevitable sequel:
"Look for it to be released in 2002. You can mark my word with a capital
X." While I underestimated by a year, it was as obvious then that
there would be a sequel as it is obvious now that there will be a
third chapter in 2006. Returning to the director's chair is Bryan
Singer, who has a clear understanding of the Marvel comic book series
and treats his cinematic adaptations with the respect and overall
faithfulness they deserve.
In terms of budget, scope, special effects, and action set-pieces,
"X2"--a stupid title that should have been called "X-Men 2"--considerably
outshines its previous installment. However, while there are a wider
array of inventive, standout moments here, the film lacks the faultless
pacing and focused storytelling of the original. Taking all of the
final elements into account, "X2" stands as a worthy enough follow-up,
but just a notch less successful. In this case, bigger doesn't necessarily mean better.
Picking up where "X-Men" left off, and doing no favors for those unfortunate
viewers who have not seen, or do not vividly remember, the first flick,
Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) returns to his family of fellow mutants after
a trip to learn about his origins leads to a dead end. Wolverine,
who has retractable claws between his fingers and the power to heal
quickly, is reunited with Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart),
the head of the Mutant Academy they live at who can control minds;
Dr. Jean Gray (Famke Janssen), a practicing telekinetic; Cyclops (James
Marsden), Jean's jealous boyfriend who has laser beams for eyes; the
weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry); Rogue (Anna Paquin), who
can steal people's life force; and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Rogue's
new beau who can freeze things.
When a maniacal, power-hungry general named Stryker (Brian Cox) sets
out to manipulate their abilities and put an end to the mutant race,
the X-Men must team up with their villainous counterparts, the metal-dominating
Magneto (Ian McKellen) and shapeshifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos),
to put a stop to Stryker's misguided plans. Brand-new mutants this
time around include Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a confused teen who controls
fire; Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a blue-skinned, reptilian teleporter;
and Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), a razor-nailed vixen being controlled by Stryker.
A full thirty minutes longer than its predecessor, "X2" is nothing
short of ambitious in the amount of characters it has to juggle within
an even larger framework, but it doesn't always pay off as handsomely
as it should. Despite being more or less a low-key, character-oriented
introduction to the series, "X-Men" never once became tedious or strained.
"X2" ultimately does not manage quite as well; the opening 40 minutes
are way too exposition-heavy, its energy notably lagging until Stryker's
forces raid the school. The overlong climax is also bogged down by
a collection of key plot points that feel rushed and not as cohesive
as they should have been.
It is the ensemble cast, some dazzling effects work, and a few of
the action scenes, then, that make "X2" a flawed movie still worth
seeing. Nightcrawler, who resembles more of a Disneyfied creation
than a true X-Man, is tolerable thanks to his awe-inspiring ability
to teleport himself through a process known as "bamfing." The effects
work in bringing this to life is wildly complex and nothing short
of marvelous, particularly in the opening sequence, in which Nightcrawler
sneaks into the White House and almost assassinates the President.
Another action set-piece, an aerial chase involving missiles and Storm-made
tornadoes, is nothing short of genuinely thrilling.
The cast take their roles seriously, and it is in their decision to
play things on a realistic level that leaves the viewer actually caring
about them. Hugh Jackman (2001's "Someone Like You") once again leads
the way with macho bravado and a tender heart as Wolverine. One of
the major strengths of the original was his sweet relationship with
the insecure and frightened Rogue; it is disappointing that it is
not accurately recaptured this time around, and that Anna Paquin (2002's
"25th Hour") has fallen into the background.
As leaders Professor X and Magneto, Patrick Stewart (2002's "Star
Trek: Nemesis") and Ian McKellen (2002's "Lord of the Rings: The Two
Towers") memorably recapture their tricky dynamic, playing off each
other with equal parts sympathy and menace. Famke Janssen (2002's
"I Spy") and Halle Berry (2002's "Die Another Day") have found their
roles of Jean Gray and Storm widened, with Janssen particularly impressing
in her poignantly developing love triangle with Wolverine and Cyclops.
Speaking of Cyclops, James Marsden (2001's "Sugar & Spice") disappears
for nearly half the movie and, strangely, is not missed; his is the
most underwritten central mutant character. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
(2002's "Femme Fatale") is as slick, devilish, and sexy as ever as
Mystique, who is also afforded more screen time and a deeper character.
Best of all, perhaps, is Kelly Hu (2003's "Cradle 2 the Grave"), viciously
indelible as Lady Deathstrike. Every moment she is on screen pulsates
with life, even when she is not doing anything of note, and Hu makes
the most of a small part. She also is given the movie's most unforgettable
sequence, by far, an elongated fight opposite Wolverine near film's
end that has to be seen to be believed.
Written by Michael Dougherty, Daniel P. Harris, and Bryan Singer,
"X2" has so many positive characteristics--not the least being how
fun it is once things get going--that it is a shame the storytelling
is so muddled at times. The movie is deceptively simple and overtly
complicated at the same time, and apart; its two halves, mixed together,
make for what is an occasionally very good, and occasionally frustrating,
experience. A major moment in the finale is also just plain sloppy,
as the group is confronted with a problem Iceman should have been
able, or at least have attempted, to fix, but never steps up to the
plate to use his freezing gift for the good of everyone else. Even
if it is nowhere near the quality of 2002's seasonal starter, "Spider-Man,"
there are enough original and fascinating portions of "X2" to make
it a respectable way to start off the slam-bang, effects-heavy summer
movie season. At the same time, there is a nagging sensation that,
with another writing draft or two, it could have been even better.
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman