|X2 - X-Men United (2-Disc Edition)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Monday, 24 November 2003|
“X-Men,” the original movie adaptation of the Marvel Comics franchise about mutants with various powers and differing attitudes toward their non-superpowered human brethren, was a thoroughly enjoyable science-fiction film that was a big theatrical hit and is currently available in an extras-loaded special edition, “X-Men 1.5,” on DVD. Three years later its sequel, “X2: X-Men United,” was released, likewise did fine at the box office and has now come out on a spiffy two-disc DVD set.
“X2” has most of the same actors/characters and creative staff as the earlier film, even bigger and better special effects and an even livelier plot to go with them. When we last saw the X-Men – so named because of their loyalty to wheelchair-bound but psychically super-endowed leader Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) – the good mutants had just saved humanity from Eric Lensherr, aka Magneto (Ian McKellen), who can control any metal substance and firmly believes that mutants and ordinary humans will never be able to live in harmony and that mutants should therefore take decisive action against humans as soon as possible. That crisis has been averted and Magneto is now locked up in a plastic prison, but new peril erupts when a demonic-looking mutant attacks and almost assassinates the President of the United States. William Stryker (Brian Cox), a profoundly anti-mutant military man, gets on the case and proposes a nighttime assault on Xavier’s School for Gifted (i.e., mutant) Children. Since Xavier and his key people – weather-controlling Storm (Halle Berry), telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden) – are all away trying to track down the would-be presidential assassin, this sounds like an easy mission. However, Stryker and his men don’t reckon with the ingenuity of the children, nor with the ferocity of their reluctant but dedicated protector, the steel-skeletoned, fast-healing Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Stryker has a secret agenda – then again, so does the down-but-not-out Magneto …
The screenplay by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris from a story by director Bryan Singer & David Hayter and Zak Penn crams in a ton of incident and individuals. It’s much to the credit of all concerned that there are quite a few grace notes woven into the major action and drama, and that the fairly involved narrative (there are three factions at odds) is always clear. Singer, who also directed the first film, revels in many of the effects – there’s a visually and aurally striking teleportation riff (referred to in the commentaries as the “bamf,” as that approximates the noise it makes) that keeps its punch despite repeat usage, cool (pardon the expression) use of Bobby’s (Shawn Ashmore) ability to create instant ice and the transformations of the gifted physical mimic Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). As in the first film, Romijn-Stamos, decked out in intense blue coloration, some scales and not much else, is pretty attention-grabbing even when she’s not doing anything.
However, viewers who have fond memories of the first film’s development of Wolverine and Rogue (Anna Paquin) may be disappointed with the big emotional arcs here. A romantic triangle between Wolverine, Jean and Cyclops doesn’t have the pull that the filmmakers seem to intend, and while the puppy love between Rogue and Bobby is charming, it doesn’t have a lot of weight. Likewise, the war between good and evil in the soul of firestarter Pyro (Aaron Stanford) is visible but never engages us on more than a level of curiosity.
One new character who does make an impression is the demonic-looking but gentle Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler, played endearingly by Alan Cumming (the filmmakers are clearly fond of him, too – three different featurettes are devoted to him). Stewart is kindly and authoritative and McKellen looks like he’s having a ball as a magic man up to no good whatever. Cox is shrewd and determined, Janssen is lovely and pensive and Paquin makes us believe Rogue is a true heroine in training. “Highlander” TV fans should recognize that series’ excellent Peter Wingfield in a supporting role as a soldier under Stryker’s command.
Supervising sound editor John A. Larsen and his team have done a wonderful, creative job of coming up with distinctive effects for all sorts of unusual phenomena – besides Nightcrawler’s “bamf,” people rush through walls and emit screams that can deafen everyone in hearing range. On the DTS track, there are directional and electronic whooshes in Chapter 1 before the film even properly begins, as Xavier’s soothing tones guide us through a universe of twinkling lights that we’ll later recognize as an aspect of the species-locating device Cerebro. Chapter 2 has nice, subtle effects in the rears to indicate quick materializations and dematerializations behind the onscreen characters. Chapter 10 has real heft in its volume as a character drops from ceiling to floor, and Chapter 13 has very realistic flesh-on-flesh impact in a hand-to-hand combat sequence. Chapters 14 and 15, which contain a massive action sequence, have discrete gunfire sounds, with bullet impacts all around, and the aforementioned sirenlike scream, which is truly sonically disturbing. Chapter 22 has some subtle and very convincing radio chatter in the rears, and does a fine job of handling a sudden aural change, from the scream of jets to near-silence inside a quiet room. Chapter 28 moves a huge explosion from back to front as a structure gives way. Chapter 30 has the one arguable sonic flaw, as the discrete effects during a fight move around in ways once or twice don’t seem to be located in the same place as the dueling characters’ lashing limbs, but this is a minor quibble.
Disc 1 contains the feature itself and two separate commentary tracks. Director Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel talk about adverse weather conditions during the Canada shoot and the details of how, where and why the sets were constructed as we see them. There are moments where the filmmakers fall silent and, unlike most DVD commentary tracks, this one does not bring up the movie to fill the gap. There are some funny anecdotes here, including discussion of a day when an impatient Sigel drove his car straight onto the set itself, and some serious discussion of how the “X-Men” mythology can serve as allegory for any number of real-life persecution scenarios. The commentary track by producers Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter and the screenwriters covers a lot of the same information ground as the other track, although fans will be happy for additional details.
Disc 2 contains a host of extras, including a very nice making-of documentary that includes interviews with most of the cast (Berry is the one notable absentee), featurettes on production design, scoring and music, and an interview with Marvel mogul Stan Lee. The 11 deleted scenes are mostly brief snippets, though an extra scene in the museum and Xavier rescuing Cyclops are interesting.
“X2: X-Men United” is a pleasure, with snappy pacing, vigorous plotting and some fantastic action. It doesn’t have quite the emotional hooks that the set-up suggests it could achieve, but it’s an absolutely good time all the same, and good value as a DVD set.