Saturday, May 27, 2006

In Theaters: X-Men: The Last Stand

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND is perhaps better than it should have been, but not quite as good as it could have been. A lot of potentially-negative buzz swirled around the film to start, based on a leaked draft of the script, the fact that director Brian Singer was no longer on board, and that after a period of dithering around, the studio hired Brett Ratner to fill in. Ratner's filmography, which includes the 2 RUSH HOUR movies and RED DRAGON (which I liked a lot more than other people did), didn't really suggest he would be anything more than a hired gun, and because of the delays the film's production was probably hurried a bit to meet the all-important Memorial Day release deadline. It's definitely a rushed film, and there are places where it doesn't work, but other parts are really quite good, and the end result is satisfying.

The plot centers around the development of a "cure" for the mutant gene which gives the X-Men, their enemies the Brotherhood, and all mutants in general their power. The government rubber-stamps the vaccine into production, and hundreds of mutants who'd like to fit into normal society line up. But Brotherhood leader Magneto (Ian McKellen) sees this as the first step towards forced "cures" and the eradication of mutants as a whole, and starts a war to stop the cure gaining any ground. The X-Men, who fight for mutant rights, are caught in the middle- they don't want to hurt or dominate mankind the way Magneto does, but the idea of being "cured" doesn't sit well with many of them. In the meantime, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who apparently died in the last film, is reborn as a more powerful, nigh-omnipotent entity who turns on the X-Men and manages to kill a couple of key members before joining Magneto's cause.

Whether or not this is intended as the last X-Men movie is... not quite clear. The studio's hedging its bets here- the movie's called "The Last Stand", but at the same time it introduces a number of new mutant characters just as it conveniently disposes of several figures from the first two movies. Halle Berry's Storm, a minor presence in the first two movies, becomes a major player here, perhaps the result of backstage negotiations- the movie version of the character lacks the complex history of the comics figure, or really any backstory at all, so it's a bit odd to have her at the forefront all of a sudden. She gives an okay performance, mind you, but it's a bit odd. Meanwhile, Cyclops, played by James Marsden (who is in Singer's SUPERMAN RETURNS, released by a rival studio no less, so you can imagine the potential resentment) is killed offscreen in the early portion of the film, in what is the film's biggest misstep. It's obvious that the character is being written out, not for dramatic effect but because the actor was busy. Meanwhile, X-fans will welcome the screen incarnations of Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), and Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), as well as cameos by RUSHMORE's Olivia Williams as non-mutant scientist Moira McTaggert and GREY'S ANATOMY's Eric Dane as Multiple Man. The studio's closing a door, opening a window, and maybe leaving the key out.

The film does feel rushed plotwise. The basic story makes sense, it's quite compelling really, but there are those little nagging questions that come up. Minor plot holes and details that are brushed over a bit too quickly. Mentioning all of them would spoil things rotten, but in vague terms, the resolution is too quick and doesn't fully resolve the questions raised by the beginning- indeed, in terms of the vague political and thematic questions raised by the "mutant cure", it seems at first to fall in an uncomfortably pro-conformist position, arguing that the problem with mutant-human relations is just Magneto and his gang. On reflection that's not quite what was intended and not quite what's laid out, but the lack of detail makes it difficult. Certainly, if it is meant to be the end of the series, it's not. It doesn't resolve the basic conflict in any substantial way, which would be fine if they planned to get back to it later. Who knows. The "Evil Jean" plotline, lifted from the famous "Dark Phoenix" storyline from the comic books, works somewhat less well- it's interestingly plotted, but doesn't integrate into the main action. (The character is billed as "Phoenix" in the credits, but doesn't call herself that or get called that or do the whole flaming-bird-avatar thing that the comics version did, so she's still basically an insanely powerful telekinetic person.)

But the film does work on the level of its characters, which is a huge point in its favor- especially to comics fans such as myself. The performances are strong all around- Patrick Stewart and McKellen are as great as usual, Hugh Jackman's take on Wolverine is identifiable and likable (a bit of a hard job considering how overexposed the character is in comics, and how he spawned so many annoyingly badass imitators,) and Kelsey Grammer is uncannily fitting as the furry blue Beast, aka Dr. Hank McCoy. Ratner does seem to be able to elicit good performances from good actors, which isn't the rarest of assets for a director, but there you go. The action is also pretty effective, maintaining the chaotic and destructive feel of the first two movies.

On the whole, it's good, and I'm glad it managed to turn out well despite the skullduggery behind the scenes. But one wonders what might have been, and because of that one hopes this isn't all there is. Better than the first one, not as good as the second, a solid bit of entertainment.

Grade: B

No comments: