X2: X-Men United
directed by Bryan Singer
starring Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Alan Cumming
20th Century Fox
With X2: X-Men United, the first theatre-rattling salvo in this summer’s sequel-filled blockbuster battle has been fired. And, once again, director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) is right on target in bringing Marvel Comics’ most intriguing and thought-provoking series to life. By fleshing out some of the first film’s characters’ relationships and personalities — and adding new heroes and villains to the mix — X2 proves to be every bit as exciting and original as its predecessor.
X2‘s story picks up where the first installment left off — with Magneto (Ian McKellen) jailed in a metal-free, lucite prison, and his old friend/foe, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) running the School For Gifted (read: mutant) Children with the assistance of the adult X-Men — Cyclops (James Marsden), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and Storm (Halle Berry). The film’s ever-thickening plot begins with a literal bang as the White House is infiltrated by a mysterious fork-tailed demon — Kurt Warner AKA Nightcrawler, played by Alan Cumming — a blue-skinned acrobat who can teleport himself from place to place in a puff of smoke. Nightcrawler’s single-handed skull-cracking of a legion of Secret Servicemen is an amazing, cheer-inducing action sequence that’s just a hint of the mayhem yet to come.
We soon learn that a deranged, mutant-hating “military scientist,” Col. Stryker (Brian Cox), has been torturing Magneto; with a mind-control serum, he’s also compelling some mutants (Nightcrawler, for one) to do his bidding — heightening a media-addled public’s paranoia about the “mutant problem.” Stryker learns the secrets of Xavier’s School, and is hell-bent on capturing not only the Professor, but the telepath’s power-amplifying device, Cerebro.
Back at the school, the ever-popular, hirsute sex god Wolverine returns empty-handed from a journey to the Alaskan wilderness in search of his forgotten past. He soon finds himself in not one, but two love triangles — competing with Cyclops for Jean Grey’s affection, and humorously enduring Bobby Drake’s frosty territory-staking of super-jailbait Rogue (Anna Paquin). With Xavier and the rest of the crew out for the evening on various missions, the six-bladed street fighter is assigned baby-sitting duty. However, the night’s calm is shattered by a full-scale military assault on the compound, and Wolverine naturally goes ballistic. In a scene that propelled some of the preview audience out of their seats, the garrulous hero goes on a shish-ke-bab spree. While Wolverine slices and dices scores of bad-guy solders, the student body escapes — with the help of the metal-skinned strongman Colossus, whose brief appearance raised more cheers from hardcore fans.
But X2 is not an action movie; rather, it is a movie with action. The ground-breaking, cerebral X-Men comic series was created amidst the civil rights movement of the mid-sixties. By turning five young people whose powers and/or physical appearances made them societal outcasts into heroes, head Marvel honcho Stan Lee and his early writers literally drew comparisons to racial and even religious intolerance — often blurring the lines between the good guys and the bad (Magneto, for example, was an orphaned Holocaust survivor).
Bryan Singer heavily underscores X2 with this persecution theme — which is just as relevant a topic in today’s climate. The result is a film with a discernable, compelling plot — punctuated by zippy verbal and visual one-liners, soberingly-deep thoughts, masterfully-choreographed ass-kicking, and believable special effects. Once again faced with the daunting challenge of presenting a large cast to a comic-literate audience, Singer and Co. do a superb job of picking and choosing which characters to focus on. Once again, Jackman’s Wolverine — one of the biggest presences in recent action filmdom — is at the head of the class (spin-off, anyone?). Cyclops is largely relegated to the back burner, in favor of introducing the religiously-fervent Nightcrawler, one of the comic’s most fascinating heroes. Cumming’s talent-revealing portrayal of the former Berlin Circus freak rivals Jackman in the perfect-casting department, and his make-up/costuming is Oscar-worthy. McK! ellen’s Magneto is superbly dry-witted and malevolent, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos — having found her screen niche as Magneto’s shape-shifting nude spy, Mystique — is sexier and slinkier than ever.
Ultimately, X2‘s storyline and anticlimactic ending is a setup for the third installment of the franchise. Many questions are raised — will Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore), who has a much larger role in this film, go full-throttle as the Iceman in the next? Will the other two original X-Men — the Beast (whose 3-second cameo in X2 will be missed by everyone but a comic fan) and the CGI-challenging Angel — ever appear? How about Havok, Banshee, Juggernaut, Quicksilver, the Blob? Will a Phoenix rise from the ashes? (Oops, a spoiler.) The well of possibilities is as deep as your pocketbooks. Stay tuned for the next action-packed issue, er, film, dear movie-goer…in the meantime, this chapter is good for at least two visits.