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X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 26 May 2006
How does this rank among the three X-Men movies? You pays your money and you makes your choice. The characters aren’t as well developed here as in the first two, but there are more of them. Some were disappointed that the second film pitted the mutants from Charles Xavier’s School for REALLY gifted children against a mere human menace in the person of Brian Cox. Here, things circle back to the first film in that the X-Men are again battling Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his now much larger Brotherhood (formerly “of Evil Mutants”), lending the opportunity for lots of major special effects sequences.

But by the same token, “X-Men: The Last Stand” is more comic-booky than the first two—the film overflows with well-staged action scenes to the detriment of character development, even though this movie maintains the very high level of acting of the first. Hugh Jackman is particularly good as Wolverine—but he was great in the first two as well. (He ended up in the role almost by accident, and the role—plus his ability and charisma—made him an immediate movie star, to his benefit and to ours.)

Halle Berry was irked that her Ororo (Storm) was, she felt, short-changed in the second outing, so here she has a larger part to play, but shorter hair. In fact, Xavier (Patrick Stewart) is grooming her to take his place as the head of the school and leader of the X-Men. Although Berry has said this is her last superhero movie, she’s so good in this part, and so relaxed and natural in it, that I hope she changes her mind.

Kelsey Grammer seemed an odd choice for Hank McCoy (Beast); in the comics, the character is the same age as Storm and Cyclops, but he’s older here. He’s evidently a graduate of Xavier’s school who’s done especially well for himself—he’s in the cabinet of the president (Josef Sommer), the Secretary of Mutant Affairs. For those who don’t read the comics: Beast is blue and very hairy, very strong, and as nimble as an ape. He doesn’t exhibit his animal-like abilities until the apocalyptic climax on Alcatraz island. Grammer is very good, and the blue makeup and hair, plus a visibly bulky body, quickly makes you forget Dr. Frasier Crane.

Having at least two storylines, the movie tends to be a bit clunky with plot. Xavier conducts a class for some of his younger students (we get little cameo glimpses of the powers of some of them), but interrupts it for events he’s picked up telepathically. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), evidently drowned in abruptly-formed Alkali Lake in the second film, has somehow been sending telepathic messages to Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden). Marie—“Rogue” (Anna Paquin) is still fretting over being unable, or unwilling actually, to touch her boyfriend Bobby “Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore), and becomes a bit jealous when he freezes a pond so Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who can walk through walls at will, can skate on it. Wolverine is worried when Cyclops roars off on a motorcycle, heading for Alkali Lake.
Ultimately, Jean is found alive, but to Wolverine’s anger, Xavier insists on keeping her in an unconscious state. In a flashback that opens the movie, we saw what happened when Xavier and Eric (Magneto) visited the young Jean at her suburban home. (This must be before Magneto decided all normal human beings were enemies to be dealt with severely.) Xavier warns Wolverine that Jean has two personalities, good and unbridled, and that the dark side calls herself Phoenix.

As if all this weren’t enough storyline, there’s also a flashback to young Warren Worthington III trying to scrape off the feathers that persist in growing on his back. His science tycoon father (Michael Murphy) is so worried about this that he devotes the energies of his vast company—a branch of which is housed on Alcatraz—to the development of a drug that will eliminate the special traits of individual mutants. He calls it a “cure.” Not all mutants consider their powers a disease. As an adult (Ben Foster), Warren rejects his father’s cure and literally spreads his wings and flies away, to return at a key moment late in the film.

Conflict, with Hank McCoy caught in the middle, and Xavier and Magneto the representatives of different types of opposing views. Magneto is convinced the war between mutants and human beings has begun. He rescues some mutants headed for enforced cure, including Cain “Juggernaut” Marco (Vinnie Jones); when he gets up speed, he can burst through almost any wall.

Wolverine’s love for Jean results in her escaping from Xavier’s laboratory; like Professor X himself, she has immense powers of the mind, the kind that used to be referred to as “psi”: she can move anything, no matter how large, no matter how numerous. (There’s an impressive scene of the unseen Jean moving many rocks of all sizes, creating a live-action Richard Powers landscape.) She has incredible telepathic powers, too. She may be the most powerful mutant of all—and now her Phoenix side is free, intermittently. There’s a confrontation between her, Xavier and Magneto in her family home that’s satisfyingly amazing, well-scored and edited. Juggernaut arrives, and before Phoenix takes over, throws Wolverine—through the ceiling. But it’s only the opening volley.

At the climax, Magneto does something with the Golden Gate Bridge better seen than described, although you get glimpses of it in the trailers. (This is Magneto showing off; he could have achieved the same ends without being so melodramatic.) Xavier’s pupils are scattered, with Storm bringing Kitty, Wolverine, Beast and others to Alcatraz for the gigantic showdown—which is a bit TOO gigantic, and which goes on too long. Also, like many other movies these days, “X-Men: The Last Stand” ends—then ends again—then ends AGAIN. Still, those who like the movie are strongly encouraged to sit all the way through the end credits for one more (and satisfying) ending.

It’s a mystery how studios choose the screenwriters for these superhero movies. So far, none has chosen to release films scripted by comic book writers (at least not since Roy Thomas moved away and Gerry Conway moved to television), who exist in abundance, many of whom are surely better writers than some of the “professional” screenwriters chosen to turn comic books into movies. One of the writers this time is Simon Kinberg, probably chosen because of his work on “Mr. and Mrs. Smith;” surely he couldn’t have been hired because of “xXx State of the Union.”

The other credited writer is Zak Penn, who at least wrote the story for “X2”—but he also wrote “Elektra” and “The Fantastic Four.” Perhaps he’s why “X-Men: The Last Stand” seems more melodramatic and overdone than the first two X-Men movies. Where’s David Hayter, credited with scripting the first two movies?

Originally, Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men outings, was scheduled for this one, but then he was offered “Superman Returns,” out in a few weeks. In an only-in-Hollywood peculiarity, his replacement was Brett Ratner—who was once scheduled to direct the big new Superman movie himself.

Ratner is a mostly routine Hollywood director—you can arm-wrestle to determine if that makes him a hack or a journeyman—whose other movies have generally not shown much promise. He did both “Rush Hour” movies (and is set for a third), but there was little about them that suggested he knew how to do more than direct traffic. “The Family Man” was better, but “Red Dragon” (2002) and “After the Sunset” (2004) were unimpressive.

It’s true that unlike the first two movies, “X-Men: The Last Stand” generates a few bad laughs (one coming when a televised news report is captioned “Magneto threat issued”). At times the dialogue is outright corny, bad in a classically comic book fashion, particularly in a couple of near-climactic speeches. And unless I missed something, it’s never explained what will ultimately be done with the mutant “cure” serum. However, keep your eye on the chess piece.

Also, the movie introduces some ethical questions—is mutation a “disease?” Can you “cure” someone against their will?—that it doesn’t even begin to answer. By the end, after all the blazing cars flung through the air, Juggernaut smashing through walls, the epochal relocation of the Golden Gate Bridge, Wolverine’s curative powers working overtime (and spectacularly), ethical considerations have been swept away again. You don’t get points for asking questions you’re not prepared to answer, but maybe these can create arguments in the car on the way home.

The movie is very fast-paced and at just over 100 minutes, doesn’t wear out its welcome. There’s one spectacle after another, vast arrays of many varieties of mutant powers (and the required special effects), huge numbers of stunt personnel. And it has Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, each of whom is spendid. This is more epic, and therefore more expensive, than the first two X-Men adventures, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. How do you top the untoppable?

The score by John Powell is uneven; the opening are backed by a big-scale, almost operatic theme, but at other times, there’s too much music. Powell does a lot of action movies—“Face/Off,” “Evolution,” “The Bourne Identity” and its sequel, the remake of “The Italian Job,” etc., plus movies with effects—in fact, which are entirely effects, in a manner of speaking: “Antz,” “Chicken Run,” “Shrek,” etc.

Fox says this is the last X-Men movie (though a Wolverine-stands-alone picture is promised). Perhaps that’s because this is as far up and out as an X-Men adventure can be expected to get. But if this movie makes as much money as it seems likely to, I suspect the Suits at Fox will find it necessary to return to the X-Men again.

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