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A summer blockbuster that has it all: action, excitment, and intelligence.
By Steve Biodrowski
July 13, 2000
Well, for X-Men
fans, the dream has finally come true: a multi-million dollar, star-studded movie version of their favorite comic book characters. I'll leave it to those fans to debate whether this is a worthy adaptation of the source material. As for the rest of us (those people the film must reach if it is to become a success), the real question is: Is it a good action-adventure-fantasy-entertainment? And the answer is yes. Even if you don't know a thing about the X-Men, you can thoroughly enjoy this film, which stands head and shoulder above the summer's other big-budget blockbusters.
What makes X-Men
so much better than The Perfect Storm, The Patriot
, and Mission Impossible II
? Well, it's not brain-dead, and it's not drowning in special effects and mindless action. Sure, there are plenty of big set pieces, but they are well paced throughout an efficiently told story (credited to exec producer Tom DeSanto and director Bryan Singer), which introduces us to the characters and situations that form the core of the mythos, and that story is performed by a solid cast who lend a commanding dignity to the proceedings. In other words, you get bang for your buck with this film, but you don't have to check your intellect at the door or apologize to yourself afterwards for liking it.
By now, whether we've read the comics or not, we all know that X-Men is really about intolerance, prejudice, and fear of the 'other.' These concepts are nothing new in the horror genre (through which various misshapen and misunderstood 'freaks' have walked for decades), but usually this situation is played out in terms of a single individual. In X-Men, the issue is expanded to encompass all of society, providing a backdrop of political witch-hunting against 'mutants' (evolutionary anomalies with strange powers that make them hated and feared by normal humans), who in self-defense take up side with one of two factions: one advocating non-violent co-existence (Professor Xavier's academy) and one advocating violent confrontation (Magneto's Brotherhood of Mutants). What elevates the storyline above the usual simple-mind good-versus-evil tripe is that Magneto, the villain of the piece, has a legitimate gripe against the way society treats him, and it is easy to see why he might attract followers. This turns the war between him and Xavier into more than just a slugfest; it is (potentially at least) an intellectual confrontation between opposed but valid viewpoints.
Therein also lies one of the film's few flaws: it uses this concept to provide subtext and depth, but it fails to maximize the potential. Given the amount of back story that needs to be filled in, coupled with the needs to tell a rousing action-packed story, the world at large is seldom seen, and the theme of racial prejudice is played out almost solely through a single individual, Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), who we mostly have to assume represents a majority opinion of the populace. In effect, the film turns out to be relatively small in scope, confined mostly to Xavier's academy, with only occasional excursions outside and a climax set on Ellis Island. The result is that, for all its good intentions, the story slips back into a simple, basic narrative structure: the bad guy tries to do something bad, so the good guys go out on a mission to prevent it. The outcome isn't based on whose philosophy is the most persuasive, but on who can through the fastest punch. That's damn near an idiotic complaint against a comic-book based movie, but in a way it's a compliment: at least the film has some ideas, even if they do ultimately take a back seat to the action.
Also, after the film is over, you realize that the Brotherhood of Mutants is a rather small brotherhood, with only four members. Under the circumstances, shouldn't mutants be joining up with Magneto (Ian McKellen) left and right, out of fear if nothing else? Shouldn't a big part of the drama be the conflict between Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto as they vie for the loyalties of the unaligned mutants and try to convert more newcomers to their cause? Just for dramatic purposes, shouldn't there be at least some doubt in viewers minds as to whether Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) will join the Brotherhood or the Academy? And lastly, if Magneto's cause is so righteous (at least to him), why are all his henchmen basically vicious thugs who seem to be in it for the mayhem and violence? Doesn't it bother him that he's hiring exactly the kind of people that make Senator Kelly's paranoia seem justified? And if Magneto is blind to this, why doesn't his former friend Xavier upbraid him for this?
Oh well, I guess we can't expect the movie to answer all of these questionswhich really only nag at you after the film is over, never impeding the entertainment value while you're watching. Instead, we should just be grateful that the script uses its political subtext to lend weight and drama to the fantasy storyline, resulting in a film that genuinely feels as if it's touching a deep nerve, all while serving up great fight scenes, spectacular effects, and even clever dialogue. And also some funny inside jokes. Two favorites: 1) Ray Park's Toad, for no visible reason, re-enacting Darth Maul's swordsman routine; 2) Cyclops' reply to Wolverine's expressed distaste for his new black leather X-Men outfit: 'Would you prefer yellow spandex?'
Unlike some art-house directors, who drown in budgets and bureaucracy when they move to large-scale Hollywood projects, Bryan Singer maintains a sure hand over the material, fashioning a film that works from start to finish, with action scenes that drive the story forward, never bogging the narrative down. The effects work is a seamless combination of physical effects and CGI that maintains an organic, realistic feel, never drowning in the cartoony imagery that undermines most effects-oriented films these days.
The cast is uniformly good; although the narrative structure leaves most of the X-Men as supporting characters, the actors add a little charisma that makes you like them and want to see more (you know the sequel's coming). Stewart and McKellen make for an excellent set of adversaries; you feel you really can take the film seriously because of them. And Jackman is dead-on perfect as Wolverine, the film's true central character. As the outsider being introduced to the group, he stands as the eyes and ears of the audience, helping to introduce us to this strange new world. His lupine good looks, physical presence, and acting ability sell the character completely, and he even manages the tear-jerker, sentimental moments without sinking into bathos.
Bottom line: X-Men
isn't going to elevate the Marvel comics franchise above more familiar icons like Batman and Superman, but it will win new converts. And even if you're not interested in comic book adaptations, but just enjoy fun-filled rousing entertainment that's cool, hip, funny, and clever, then this movie is for you.X-MEN: 20th Century Fox, in association with Marvel Entertainment Group, presents The Donners Company/Bad Hat Harry Production of a Bryan Singer Film. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by David Hayter, from a story by Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Ralph Winter; executive producers, Stan Lee, Avi Arad, Richard Donner, Tom DeSanto. Music: Michael Kamen. Visual effects supervisor: Michael Fink. Special makeup design: Gordon Smith. Editors: Steve Rosenblum, Kevin Stitt and John Wright, A.C.E. Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel. Rated PG-13. July 14, 2000. Starring: Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Bruce Davison, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park and Anna Paquin.