Saturday, April 19, 2014

X2: X-Men United


I am glad to announce that I have been released from the Ramstein Air Force Base hospital compound, my health fully restored. As I type this, I am busy winging my way back to the good old US of A on board a transport plane full of used tank parts and Halliburton executives. How I long to be back at Chateau Maine, high in the Hollywood Hills, to continue my recuperation from recent traumatic events. I was absolutely petrified when I was seized from the streets of some nameless Iraqi town for offending public morality; my harem costume was perfectly modest, and quite fitting for such a hot day. I shudder when I think of my incarceration in that dismal little cell; the local constabulary kept making vile propositions and only the occasional well placed stiletto heel kept my virtue intact.

I was despairing of my future as everyone's favorite reigning diva of stage and screen when my fortunes finally took a turn for the better. A nice detachment of marines raided the compound in which I was being held looking for weapons of mass destruction. I believe they found several cases of old anti-freeze and a can of Pam cooking spray. I managed to catch their attention by tapping out a quick SOS in Morse Code on the cement floor and they soon had the cell door open and I was free. Unfortunately, as it was some days after the official end of the war, there were no embedded journalists to document my dramatic rescue and it did not get the publicity it so richly deserved. I was taken by Humvee to Baghdad and then evacuated to Ramstein for treatment and debriefing. I was able to place a call to Madame Rose, my publicist, asking her to start fielding movie offers on the story of my dramatic capture and rescue but there's apparently a glut of such things on the market at the moment with every studio in town developing the Jessica Lynch story; I suggested we perhaps spin it in such a way that we give an alternative explanation where satanic cultists are the true culprits, but that didn't pan out.

The film on the flight was the new summer film blockbuster, X2: X-Men United, the sequel to the film X-Men from a few years ago. Bryan Singer returns as the director and with a story credit. Most of the cast is back as well, along with a few new faces with unusual mutant abilities. The first film was a bit of a disappointment; it was a by the numbers comic book fantasy, saved mainly by star power. The storytelling was clunky and the plot was a retread of multiple tired action thrillers. This new installment is much more inventive, doesn't get nearly as bogged down in exposition, and is generally lighter until it hits a horribly paced third act where the whole cast runs around cement tunnels under a dam for what seems like forever.

For those unfamiliar with the finer points of Marvel Comics, the universe of the X-Men is modern America with a twist. Something has happened to human genetics so that a small number of people are born with super human abilities. These mutants, who do everything from control the weather to create ice to shoot laser beams from their eyes, are scary to normal humans and there is a move afoot to register and detain them all in the name of social safety. (One can draw all sorts of political parallels if one chooses, especially in a post 9/11 world...) There's even a sequence in the film, where a young mutant confronts his parents, that plays like a slick parody of every treacly gay coming out scene ever filmed. Fortunately, Singer doesn't dwell on it too long and we're soon blowing up a police cruiser or two.

The most powerful mutant is Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who can telepathically link to all mutants and humans with the aid of an enormous supercomputer. He runs a school for mutants, attempting to keep them safe and to help them hone their talents and has a gang of adult mutants, the X-Men, who run around in cool suits in the name of truth, justice and the American Way. They include Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) who has a continual bad hair day and knives that come out of his knuckles when he's upset; Storm (Halle Berry) who wears an Eva Gabor white wig and develops cataracts whenever she controls the weather; his assistant, Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a telepath; her boyfriend Cyclops (James Marsden) who disappears for most of the film; Rogue (Anna Paquin) who has a killer touch; and a couple of new faces Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) who seems to be part reptile and who teleports with wisps of blue smoke and a BAMF sound effect; Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) who creates walls of ice, even in air conditioned environments (physics is not a strong suit of films like this); and Pyro (Aaron Stanford), who flicks a lighter and occasionally sends out gouts of flame.

The X-Men are put in danger when a sinister government official (is there any other kind in such a film?), William Stryker (Brian Cox), moves against the mutants with a commando raid. This leads to many action sequences, lots of running, air battles and the eventual need of Xavier to call on the temporary help of arch-fiend mutant Magneto (Ian McKellen) who finds a new cure for hemochromatosis and arrives with his henchman Mystique (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos), another blue reptilian with shape shifting abilities. Magneto's other henchmen from the first film, Sabretooth and Toad, are missing in action here. Eventually, the whole cast converges on a secret government lab in the wilds of the north where nefarious goings on are about to threaten all mutant kind. This leads to half an hour of running through dreary caverns of cement as various characters are placed in and out of mortal jeopardy and there is a catharsis of sacrifice.

It's hard to critique the performances of actors who are basically playing cartoons. The various mutants (and there are a lot of them to keep track of this time out) have romantic triangles, deep enmities and crises of faith and conscience, but all this emotional agony has the depth of a wading pool. The actors are talented, they get the point across in a couple of broad strokes and then we move breathlessly off to the next set up. They seem to be having fun and most are treating this as exactly what it is, a lark. Ian McKellen and Alan Cumming ham it up expertly in their scenes. Patrick Stewart, as the center of gravitas for the film, looks like he longs to join them but daren't. Most of the others don't get enough screen time to make much of an impression other than Hugh Jackman as the soulful Wolverine. He has a couple of moments where he's confronting his past where he says more with his eyes than he could with pages of dialog.

Bryan Singer seems a bit more open and free as a director this time around. In the first film, I think he was worried about making the franchise work and a lot of time was spent on clunky exposition and the action set pieces were more of an afterthought. This time around, he doesn't have to do that and he can just take his audience along for the ride. He only makes one real mistake; his third act. Someone needed to get out the scissors and trim ten minutes from the final plot complications. A lot of them are unnecessary and the false climaxes eventually become irritating and start to collapse under their own weight.

Still, there are a lot worse ways to spend a summer evening at the movies. The kids will enjoy the action; the adults will have some fun with the politics and the form fitting costumes.

Lucite prison. Computer breaking and entering. Deadly fingernails. Gratuitous Bruce Davison. Nearly naked blue Alan Cumming. Nearly naked blue Rebecca Romjin-Stamos. Poor jet piloting. Shrieking child. Gratuitous diet Dr. Pepper placement. Evil mind control juice. Villain in chains. 

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