[nota bene: The following review, by necessity, contains some spoilers]
X2 Marks the Spot
X2 is bigger, better, and more emotional than its predecessor, X-Men.
That is, if you liked X-Men.
Released in 2000, X-Men was quite a hit despite what the skeptics thought. It made $157 million dollars, was released twice on DVD, and heralded the rebirth of Marvel comic books as a vital source for popular movies, followed by Spider-Man and Daredevil, the soon to be released Hunk, and now X2.
And like its sequel, X-Men was a reasonably accurate account of the source comics. Though the films blend X-Men myths from all eras of the comic book's history, this seems to be acceptable to purists because within that largo the writers have respected the integrity of the comic's story arcs.
The second X-Men film has a much more solid and involving screenplay and story structure. It opens with an assault on the President (Cotter Smith) by a new mutant, Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), really a German ex-circus exhibit with a religious bent named Kurt Wagner. It's a bravura sequence in which you don't notice the CGI and special effects for all the action. The fact that you don't really know what's going on and that the sequence is ultimately pointless don't matter (but at least the setting does rhyme with the film's climactic moment).
The attack on the Prez does provide motivation for a certain military scientist, General William Stryker (Brian Cox), to get authorization to initiate a rogue exercise against the Xavier school for "gifted" kids. Meanwhile, Logan (Hugh Jackman), a.k.a. the Wolverine, has returned from his trek to trace his roots. Returning to the school he walks right back into the soap opera he left behind at the end of the last movie: he loves Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), she loves him, but also Cyclops (James Marsden), and Rogue (Anna Paquin) still kinda loves Logan while making the first few fumbling steps toward dating fellow student Iceman (Shawn Ashmore).
Soon enough, the various mutants are scattered across the film's landscape, as Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Gray fly off to find the elusive Nightcrawler, mutant honcho Professor Xavier (Patrick Stuart) visits Magneto (Ian McKellen) in his plastic prison (on somewhat flimsy but convenient grounds), and Logan is left behind to baby-sit "the kids" just in time for Stryker's paratroopers to launch an attack.
When, via various plot machinations, all the X-people are reunited for a lengthy and complicated climactic sequence, real suspense is generated not only for the X-people, but for all the people in the world.
X2 has a lot going for it. The characters are richer than in the previous venture. The script is intricate and relatively solid. The special effects are (mostly) seamless.
So why was I slightly bored throughout the film?
It wasn't tremendous boredom. The film has several hot chicks to look at and the cameraman makes sure that you can see them (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos's blue-hued Mystique is omnipresent, even when only standing in the background). No, it was low-grade boredom, especially when the characters began to talk. The action scenes are well handled, but the dialogue sequences look like every other dialogue scene you've ever seen in a big Summer movie. Yes, of course, there are only so many ways to shoot people talking. Hitchcock was aware of that problem. The solution is to add something extra to the dialogue, or to the surrounding setting or scene and keep the suspense going. Instead all the chat in X2 comes out of the soap opera comics that Marvel was famous for before the advent of their super heroes in the early '60s.
My slight boredom, my inability to get fully caught up in the story, freed me to ponder certain aspects of the film. For example, when trying to free Magneto from his Tupperware cell, why doesn't Mystique just replicate someone who works there? Why the elaborate trick of injecting iron into a guard's body? Sure, it makes for a "sexy" seduction scene in a bathroom (Romijn-Stamos just can't stay out of bathrooms), and it makes for a great escape special effects sequence, but the elaboration is far in excess of the desired result. And why does a certain character perform an act of self-sacrifice? It is poorly motivated, if motivated at all (a couple of other characters discuss the event briefly but that's not enough, the sacrifice needs to arise organically from the story). The sacrifice wasn't necessary (there were alternatives), it caused more emotional trouble than it was worth, and anyway, the viewer suspects that the character will pop up in the third movie anyway so what's the point of the emotional reaction to the event (unless the thespian sought to be written out of the series).
Also, the film has a certain programmatic air to it, a catering to demographics. You have sexy women, old people, and other demographic flash points. Not only that, Singer has managed to round up seemingly every openly gay actor working in Hollywood, which is crucial to the theme of the series. A bunch of teens are also included in the film, not just because Xavier runs a school, but because it is supposedly good for box office. I don't know how anyone else feels, but when I was a kid I didn't like film just because kids were in them, and when I was a teenager, I hated movies about teenagers. For the most part the teen element of the film is fairly thin. The boys all look the same and don't do much but stand around and scream or show off, and one of them is lured to "the dark side" in an obvious set up for the third edition. The little kids at the school are even less of a presence (though there is a funny Harry Potter looking kid used in one sequence.)
Perhaps what I was recoiling from was the Puritanical need to make the film uplifting. We can't just like comics for themselves. They have to be politicized, to prove that they are not frivolous habits that waste away children's' minds. Thus, the mutants are a disgraced, feared, and hated minority, like blacks or gays. Though imbued with special powers, human beings will never realize that or appreciate them because mutant hatred has been pumped up by various special interest groups and the media. Singer in his stewardship of the franchise has emphasized the social estrangement element of the comics (perhaps to make up for the psycho-sexual oddities of Apt Pupil?). I see the point but to me it feels tacked on rather than fully integrated into the film.
Or it all may just be my Singer problem. The Usual Suspects was a freak hit, an Oscar winner, and a great boost to Singer's career. However, a viewing of The Way of the Gun suggests that the real auteur of US was the film's writer, Christopher McQuarrie, who kept his own directorial effort hard, coldly witty, evocative, and subtle. One can only imagine what McQuarrie would have done with the screenplay (to which Singer contributed). I'm guessing that his version would have been more oblique, slightly better cast, colder and yet more masculinly sentimental in the Peckinpah mode, and darkly funnier.
But does anyone really direct big summer action films? The second unit work is recorded by other hands. The CGI stuff is out of different and discreet FX houses. The screenplay, in this case composed by some five people including Singer, is mostly independently created, though probably with some input from the director. What's left for Singer to do but to tilt the film slightly toward his own agenda? X2 is good, competent commercial contemporary filmmaking. I guess I just wish it sported something more in the way of mutations.
X2's DVD Potential
The first X-Men movie was released twice, first to get it into the stores to capitalize on the ebb tide of the film's popularity and publicity, the second time to add numerous supplements.
Will Fox follow the same strategy with the second film? Why not? It seemed to work the first time, and now everyone does it from New Line with the LOTR films to Artisan, with its frequent repackagings.
The second X-Men release was a two disc set with six deleted scenes with optional director's commentary and 17 making of featurettes not found in the first edition. The second disc featured an introduction by Bryan Singer, "The Uncanny Suspects," "X-Factor: The Look Of The X-Men," "The Special Effects of the X-Men," storyboard to film comparisons, "Reflection of the X-Men," movie premiere footage from Ellis Island and elsewhere, multi-angle scene options, galleries, trailers, TV spots, and an X2 teaser. I would expect the material on the final disc of X2 to be much the same, with perhaps an audio track by Singer or others, but also much better organized, since the studio was probably commissioning DVD material throughout X2's production.
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