Thursday, January 5, 2012

Movie Review: "X2: X-Men United" by David Pretty

Greetings Mutants and Mutettes!

Ever wonder why a twelve-hour-long HBO series can be uniformly excellent all the way through yet movie trilogies struggle to maintain a consistent level of quality in half the run time?  More often then not, it's because producers fail to see the value in retaining the same creative team throughout an entire film franchise.

X2: X-Men United wisely reunited the same crew that made 2000's X-Men a surprise hit.  In doing so, fans got see just how good a continuation can be.  Bryan Singer and his talented writing partners (Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and the returning David Hayter) built on the solid foundation established by the first film.  In doing so, they forged a superior sequel which manages to eclipse its predecessor in depth, complexity and entertainment value.

Here's the film's, high-octane trailer.


The film picks up right where the first one left off.  Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) follows up on Professor Xavier's advice to investigate Alkali Lakes (deep in stereotypically snowy Canada) but he fails to glean any new insight into his mysterious past.  When he returns to the X-mansion he finds the place abuzz with news that a newly surfaced mutant named Nightcrawler (Alan Cummings) has attempted to assassinate the president.

After Jean Gray (Famke Jannsen) and Storm (Halle Berry) are dispatched to track down the fugitive, Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Cyclops (James Marsden) confront Magneto (Ian McKellen) about his possible role in the attack.  They soon discover that a covert military operative named William Stryker (Brian Cox) has been wringing information out of the Master of Magnetism to use in campaign of revenge against Xavier. Taking advantage of the anti-mutant hysteria in the wake of the assassination attempt, Stryker is given carte blanche to annex the X-mansion.

But his strike team gets more then they bargained for with Wolverine on guard duty.  Logan kills a slew of the soldiers and manages to evacuate most of the kids, but his re-union with Stryker triggers a potent recollection.  As it turns out, the black ops agent also had a hand in turning Logan into a pissed-off, indestructible Slap-Chop.

Meanwhile, the multi-talented Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) uses her various guises to spring Magneto from his plastic prison and the two "evil" mutants end up rescuing the X-Men.  When Magneto tells them that Stryker plans to co-opt Xavier's unearthly telepathic powers to kill every mutant on earth, an unlikely alliance is forged.  As they move to confront Stryker on his home turf, the X-Men are blissfully unaware that Magneto has his own hidden agenda.

One of the great things about having the same writer and director carry over is that events which occurred in the first film really have a direct impact on what follows.  In that regard,  X2 is positively in love with the first film (as well it should be).  Immediately we're treated to a series of events directly inspired by what came before it.

Continuity junkies will have a ball picking watching this.  Bobby "Iceman" Drake (Shawn Ashmore) gets an expanded role and creates his signature ice-wall to boot.  Mystique, still mimicking the deceased Senator Kelly (Bruce Davidson), is revealed to Wolverine thanks to the scars he gave her in X-Men.  Rogue (Anna Paquin) shares a scene of bitter re-union with Magneto, recalling her near death at the climax of the first film. Colossus and Kitty Pryde, barely glimpsed before, get to exhibit their powers during the attack on the mansion.

And then there's a whole new well-spring of comic book minutia to geek out over.  Stryker's telepathic son conjures up shades of the classic X-foe Mastermind.  Wolverine tangles with a 2.0 version of himself in the form of Lady Deathstrike.  Nightcrawler is depicted as a devout Catholic.  Jean Gray's powers are now fluctuating wildly, hinting at her ascension to "Phoenix" status.  A hot-headed human flamethrower named Pyro (Aaron Stanford) has a crisis of allegiance.

Although with that last one, would it have really killed them to hire one more Aussie?    Sorry, I digress...

I love how the plot springs organically from its predecessor but then branches out into new and exciting territory.  The seemingly disparate puzzle pieces of the story all fall into place at the end.  For example, even though Nightcrawler is a new character introduced into an already-crowded ensemble, his abilities and  experiences eventually do pay off.

At every turn, Singer and his writers are committed to bringing complexity, nuance and respect to what many people would dismiss as a mere funny-book movie.  Clearly they aren't content with treating the audience  like a bunch of popcorn-drunk knuckle-draggers who'll pay to see anything.  This is no more evident then in the film's main plot.

Indeed, Stryker's scheme is pretty foolproof and it only starts to unravel when the "good" and "evil" mutants unexpectedly pool their collective resources.  I also have to give bonus points to the film-makers for insuring that these two opposing forces ally together for logical reasons, not because the script arbitrarily demands that they do.

The character of Magneto really benefits from this sharp screenwriting.  At first, he agrees to work with his hated rivals purely for self-preservation, but towards the end he just can't resist turning the tables to his own advantage.  Frankly, this resolution is a stroke of genius.  Above all, it shows that villains don't do evil things just for the sake of discord.  They bide their time, take care of number one and then strike when the time is optimal.

As great as X-Men was, you could really tell that it was shot on a limited budget.  This actually worked to the film's advantage since the special effects team had to take a back seat to the characters, performances, dialogue and story.  Unfortunately it also limited that film's scope and gave it a vaguely T.V.- movie-of-the-weak quality.

With X2, however, the whiff of studio frugality is gone.  There are several terrific locations, fantastic fight scenes, improved make-up jobs, aerial battles and spectacular moments whereby the characters really exploit their amazing powers. Bryan Singer's direction is a lot more ambitious here and his action sequences are incredibly dynamic.  Nightcrawler's assault on the White House is supremely thrilling and it sets the bar high for everything to follow.  Only in the scene with Jean Gray battling the deluge does the CGI illusion falter somewhat.  

Even amidst all the improved spectacle, Singer gives us plenty of quiet little moments with the characters.  In doing so he's rewarded with several fine performances.  Since Hugh Jackman had to sub in for Dugray Scott at the eleventh hour he never really got a chance to get properly bulked up the first time out.  Here he looks just as you might expect Wolverine to look: ripped, coiled and poised to fly off the handle at any moment.

He also gets plenty of opportunities to bring nuance to a character that some people have erroneously written off as a mindless berserker.  Taking a page from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's "failed samurai" concept, Logan shows plenty of range here.  Jackman expertly transitions between quiet, protective calm over the students, tragic heartbreak in his unrequited love for Jean and then back to bestial ferocity whenever he's faced with Stryker's goons.  Rumor has it that Jackman would habitually subject himself to ice-cold showers to generate the necessary foul mood required to play Wolverine, and let me tell ya folks, every sub-zero spritz seems to be up there on the screen.

Halle Berry as Ororo "Storm" Munroe get more to do here and that's a good thing.  She spars nicely with Nightcrawler and reveals tremendous fear, bitterness and trepidation towards humans, especially for a mutant who looks relatively "normal".   To me it's a tremendous waste that we'll never get to see the reasons for her pain.  It's also inexplicable to me as to why her subtle African accent from the first film has mysteriously vanished.     

Storm's expanded role may have come at Rogue's expense, which is a pity since I love Anna Paquin.  Between her showdown with Magneto, subdual of Pyro and bonding with Nightcrawler, she still gets quite a few memorable scenes.  Speak of the devil, Alan Cumming is truly fantastic as our favorite blue elf.  His German accent is subtle and mercifully avoid any comparisons to Colonel Clink.  His physical performance is a great compliment to the excellent make-up job and seems to carry with it trepidations caused by past abuse.     

Another demerit is James Marsden's reduced screen time as Cyclops.  With so many characters to put through their paces, I suppose someone had to be excised but a few more scenes with him and Logan would have been great.  Famke Jannsen is also tremendous again as Jean Gray.  Here she's coping with the instability that Magneto's artificial mutation machine has wreaked on her telekinetic powers.  Jannsen's so good that she's able to sneak in a few subtle tells regarding her feelings for Logan without courting thoughts of betrayal towards Scott.  

Patrick Stewart's contributions are also rather limited here, since he spends large tracts of time in thrall to Stryker's son.  Nevertheless, he still brings his "A" game to those early debates with Magneto and a terrible sense of loss in the tragic denouement.  As Xavier's ethical flip-side, Ian McKellen really runs away with the ball as Magneto.  Even while allied with his X-rivals he still gleefully baits Rogue and tries to tempt Pyro towards the Dark Side.  He's absolutely fabulous.

Also on the villainy front, Rebecca Romijn is slinky perfection as Mystique, even getting a welcome reprieve from the all-encompassing makeup in one scene.  Brian Cox, one of my favorite character actors of all time, also provides a tremendous level of depth to Stryker.  If you don't believe me then just compare him to the meat-headed Colonel Quaritch in Avatar.  He does a fine job revealing Styker's private shame over his own son's mutant curse as well as misplaced guilt for Xavier's failure "cure" him.  Again, it's great to see the power and complexity of a well-motivated antagonist.     

I love this movie and unlike, say, Spider-Man 2, I actually like it more and more every time I watch it.  It just kills me that Singer, for whatever reason, jumped ship to helm Superman instead of completing his mutant trilogy.  Instead the series capper was left in the stony mitts of that talentless fuck Brett "Ratface" Ratner.  The results were akin to a cinematic war-crime.

What's really masochistic is if you engage in some speculative "what if" scenarios.  Indeed, the last few shots of X2 give tantalizing hints as to what we could have been in X-Men 3.  Might we have been privy to Singer's take on the greatest X-Men storyline ever: the hallowed Phoenix Saga?

We'll never know.  In the end, this amazing plot line was pissed away by Ratner as a ham-fisted, addle-brained afterthought in the third film.  Man, talk about depressing.

Maybe one day Singer will go back and do what he did with Superman.  Maybe he'll try and erase a shameful coda to an otherwise promising first two films.


Tilt: up.


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