Published at: April 14, 2003, 6:13 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Xtraordinary. Xceptional. Xcellent.
Is that enough X jokes? Can we go ahead and dig right in and talk about why this is one of the most creatively successful franchise films in recent memory?
First of all, let me get the by now almost perfunctory congratulations to Marvel Studios out of the way. This may be their strongest overall property, and if I were them, I’d protect it the way MGM protects the Bond license. Fox and Marvel should be quite happy together, making X-MEN films from now ‘till the end of movies. You can always bring in new cast, and right now, there’s a rich and fascinating mythology being set up by these first two films, one with a web of complex and interesting character relationships.
Producers Lauren-Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter have given Bryan Singer room to stretch this time out, and the result is a film that feels so much fuller and more alive than the first one that the comparison is almost unfair. I loved the first X-MEN when I saw it, and I feel the same way about this one. This time out, though, there’s no sense that you need to excuse certain limitations because of production difficulty or time constraints or budgetary concerns. There’s no sense of compromise here at all. This is a giant budget film, and every mutant character is allowed to fly the freak flag high. The action is better, the design is richer, the characters are allowed to do more. It’s a wonderful example of how to come back to a world and get the most out of it. Right now, right here, I want to beg Bryan Singer to make X-MEN 3, and to follow the set-up from this film to its logical and remarkable conclusion. If you do it... if you go for it the way it looks like you’re going for it... this is going to be an untouchably cool trio of movies. As it stands right now, you did exactly what you set out to do. It’s EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. It’s THE ROAD WARRIOR. It’s WRATH OF KHAN. It’s a second film that’s better than the first, and it deserves to be a monster, monster hit.
Now... here’s my one caveat. This film might actually be too good at what it does for some of the mainstream to totally get onboard. The terminology flies fast and furious in the film, and we are introduced to so many characters and so many storylines that it’s sort of like picking up in the middle of the season with a TV show. I would recommend that people revisit the first film immediately before going to see the sequel. It will pay off beautifully if you do. Dan Harris and Mike Doughterty (working from an initial draft by Zak Penn and subsequent revisions by David Hayter and Singer himself) have fine-tuned this to make sure that continuity is meticulous, and the character work picks up exactly where it left off last time. This is issue two, and as a result of our knowledge of incidents the first time around, the film doesn’t have to waste time with backstory. Instead, when Wolverine pursues the mystery of his own origin, or when reference is made to the Liberty Island incident, it’s not exposition. Instead, it’s progress, and we’re always learning more about characters like Mystique, who makes a spectacular return here. I liked Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in the first film, but she really shines here. I’m one of the critics who liked FEMME FATALE and thought she was wicked fun to watch there. She’s spoken about how hard it is to play Mystique, so let me offer up the thought that it’s worth it. Whatever the effort, it’s worth it. She is the perfect match for Ian McKellen’s Magneto. I love the subtle way that Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) still insists on calling him “Erik.” It’s obvious what Magneto thinks based on a scene where he is talking with one of the students from Xavier’s school, a troubled kid (TADPOLE’s Aaron Stanford) who can control fire. “What’s your name?” “John,” the sullen kid answers. “Your real name,” insists Magneto, and the kid finally smiles, just a bit. “Pyro.” He knows in that moment that he’s found his proper home, his fitting mentor. Life as a mutant seems to be a choice to live like Xavier or live like Magneto. Life’s so hard, predjudice is so ingrained, that the simple act of being a mutant is political. The subtext of the first film, with Xavier as MLK and Magneto as Malcolm X, polar opposites in a quest to achieve civil parity, is turned up here, and it’s complicated in the smartest ways. Foes end up working towards the same ends, or so it seems. The way alliegence shifts in the film is one of the great pleasures of it. The cast works as an ensemble, all of them giving vivid life to these characters, no matter how peripheral.
You’ve got CHUD.com to thank for that poster. I haven’t seen it in theaters yet, but I like it a lot. It’s a striking image of the cast together. I’d like to point out that there’s no mention of the subtitle X-MEN UNITED on the poster or on the print of the film that I saw. It’s just X2. Nothing else.
I don’t want to go into many specifics about story, and I’ll explain why. Yes, I reviewed the script last year. I explained a lot of the film’s basic ideas at that point, and for the most part, that’s the same film I saw tonight. But the film’s better. A lot better. Everything’s been carefully crafted, and it grabs you from the opening sequence. Our introduction to Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) is unforgettable. I’ve heard what a “BAMF!” sounds like now, and it’s exactly right. It’s the same kind of right as the first time we saw Wolverine snap those claws out with a SNIKT! in the bar in the first film. It’s something we’ve been reading for twenty years or more, come to life and realized in a way we never could have hoped for. We don’t know where he comes from. We don’t know anything about him in that opening scene. He’s just as menacing to the audience as he is to the President and the absolutely mystified Secret Servicemen who have to try to stop him. From just this one sequence, it’s obvious that the action in this film works in a whole different way than in the first one. It’s hallucinatory. You don’t think about what’s CG and what’s not. It’s just Nightcrawler, teleporting from room to room, hall to hall, spot to spot, like a creature made of smoke and fangs with a deadly accurate tail.
The marketing of the film places a lot of emphasis on Pyro, Rogue (Anna Paquin), and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), also known as Bobby Drake to his parents, who don’t know what he is. Theirs is a subplot of the film, but all three of the young actors deserve credit for doing strong, appealing work. These are characters we want to see more of. They’ll grow into full-fledged X-Men teammates if they stick with the franchise, and Ashmore in particular is a pleasant surprise.
The film still belongs in large part to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. He is one of the best new tough guys in film in recent memory. Wolverine is a deadly animal in this film. He’s far more savage here than in the first one. There’s a body count in the film. Those claws of his aren’t just for decoration. It’s not a bloody film, but it is intense. The stakes feel desperate from frame one. I’m delighted to see that Famke Janssen was given a larger role this time out as Jean Grey. She’s the perfect match for Jackman, interesting and beautiful and playing all the grace notes her role allows. Halle Berry’s not saddled with any dialogue that will make your eyes roll this time, and she makes a strong impression as Storm in pretty much every scene she’s in. Stewart’s got to feel good about life after STAR TREK, and his work in these films is at least as good as the best TREK stuff he ever did. Xavier’s an interesting, ambiguous figure at times, and he manages to not play the Professor as a saint. He’s got an agenda just as much as Magneto, and there are things he does to people in this film that I don’t know I agree with. It may be Magneto who snarls “You are a god among insects” to the young mutant Pyro, but Xavier doesn’t seem to have any problem with manipulating and controlling people if he needs to.
There are at least six major set pieces I can think of in this film that are worth seeing again immediately, and there are others, as well. The film’s jammed full of striking imagery. Singer’s helped in large part by the contributions of Thomas Newton Seigel, his long time cinematographer, and the addition of John Ottman to the franchise as composer and editor. Ottman had to sit the first film out, and that’s a shame. There’s a control to the filmmaking here that is fairly impressive. It’s sleek, confident stuff, and there’s a remarkable air of decay to a lot of the movie. It’s unsettling in some ways, and I mean that as a compliment. Seigel’s got a way of shooting this world to make it feel cold, unwelcoming. The school is this haven, this safe place, which makes it so disturbing to see soldiers breaking into it and shooting children. It’s a violation. There’s no question where the film’s sympathies lie. Stryker, the face of the military in this film, is a loathesome bad guy. Brian Cox does absolutely great work here. He’s the real mutant, a man consumed by hatred, inhuman, beyond salvation.
James Marsden doesn’t have a lot to do as Cyclops, but I like what he does when he’s onscreen. He and Jackman still have a strong sense of chemistry, and there’s nothing cooler than seeing Cyclops open up a can of optic blast whoop ass. There are cameos by mutants we don’t really get a chance to meet, like Hank McCoy or some Cajun guy named Remy, but not in the ways you expect. The film is packed with easter eggs for eagle-eyed comic fans, which is why it may have more enduring appeal for really hardcore fans than for casual viewers. That’s not a complaint, though. I love the idea that we’re being treated with real respect. These films treat the source material as worthwhile, something special, something to be preserved and duplicated. True, this isn’t any sort of word-for-word translation of GOD LOVES, MAN KILLS, the Chris Claremont Stryker story that inspired this film’s plot, but it gets the spirit of the thing so right that there’s no room to complain. The X-Men fight as a team here. Everyone plays a role. Even if it’s just one or two scenes, those scenes tend to count.
I think Deathstrike is a visual winner, a well-realized character who just isn’t ultimately given much to do. As much as audiences will like Kelly Hu in the role, she’s really got one big sequence in the movie. It’s a stunner, and based on this, I hope someone gives her a lot to do in another movie. In a way, she’s Darth Maul. There’s nothing wrong with the work she does, except we would probably like more of it. Nightcrawler, on the other hand, is used just right. He doesn’t take over, but he’s given plenty of time to make an impression. Cumming does tremendous work. He’s shy, occasionally proud, drenched in religious zeal, and his connection to Storm pays off with some really nice quiet moments. He was absolutely the right choice as a new team member in this film. He’s flawlessly realized. All the mutant effects seem to be top notch in this film. Magneto’s got a few big moments that are incredibly inventive. Storm’s best moment comes behind the controls of the X-Jet. And the way Cerebro is used this time out is just plain beautiful. Singer never forgets... this is a movie. It’s visual. The images shimmer here. There’s nothing that’s just routine or mundane or matter of fact. He seems to have packed every frame with something to draw the eye, some detail that makes this incredible world seem real. The result is a film you could get lost in, worth full price at the best theater in town, center seat, as soon as possible.
The best thing I can say about X2 is that it doesn’t deserve to be categorized as a “comic book film.” It’s better than that. It’s just a great piece of escapist art. It’s the kind of effortless home run that seemed to categorize every summer of my childhood. It’s the year’s first big-budget studio home run, a film that delivers from end to end. I see this, and I feel like the bar has been set really high for other similar franchises. Making great commercial movies is always something of a magic trick, and it depends on chemistry and the combination of so many different talents that it’s almost impossible to predict. What Fox has done here that Warner Bros. seems unable to do with all of their DC Comics properties is a lesson worth learning. They’ve made an impossible promise to the audience, and they’ve kept it. They’ve made a movie that should satisfy the most demanding of audiences. They’ve managed to keep all the best story secrets and visual surprises a secret. You should avoid all spoilers until you’ve seen the film, and you shouldn’t try to see any more footage than you have already. If you’ve seen the trailers, the great news is that you haven’t seen anything yet. None of what made my jaw hit the floor made it into the trailers. You should experience it cold, the way I did tonight. I can’t wait to see this with a paying crowd opening weekend. I can’t wait to see how much you guys love it.
In plain language, you’ll love it like I loved it, and you’ll want more. Let’s hope Fox and Singer and Dougherty and Harris and the Donners and Ralph Winter and that cast go back to work immediately. X3 can’t get here fast enough.