Top-notch comic-book adaptation, rip-roaring action flick and engaging social commentary.
Comic-book adaptations are the new black, apparently. Whether due to the fact (1978's Superman aside) that, until very recently, special effects technology just couldn't do justice to the abilities of the characters, or that the studios merely needed fresh source material, Hollywood has been making more and more of these movies in recent years, shying away from more traditional literary sources. And how grateful we are for it, as most of the big comic-book and graphic novel adaptations (Blade, Spider-Man, Daredevil et al) of recent years have been hugely enjoyable affairs. With several more in the pipeline, it looks a rosy future is all but assured for this new genre.
And every genre should have an archetype. There have been several contenders, most notably Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, which broke all kinds of box office records, and earned Sony a frankly obscene amount of money, but it should have been X-Men.
X-Men is not only the world's most popular comic-book, it also contains the most interesting characters and the most engaging and stimulating themes and ideologies. However, the original movie, released in 2000, just didn't match up to its potential. Sure, it was enjoyable, and gave the brilliant Hugh Jackman his real break, but you couldn't help wanting more. In fact, it suffered from the same problems as George Lucas's long-awaited Star Wars prequel, The Phantom Menace - just not enough happened. Both movies failed to deliver on their promises (and hype), and in the end the events in both would have been well enough served by being incorporated into a prologue or slightly extended (about 10 minutes ought to have covered all the salient points) running time in their sequels.
Director Bryan Singer really set out to get things right second time around, though, and a bloody good job he's done of it too. So much so that X2 is now the comic-book adaptation by which all others should be judged. With almost all the original cast (minus, of course, Ray Park - coincidentally one of the most enjoyable features in both X-Men and The Phantom Menace by dint of his impressive martial arts ability), the addition of a villainous Brian Cox and several new mutants, a running time extended by 37 minutes, budget increase of $50 million, and a better wig for Halle Berry's Storm (surely the single most important improvement?), things definitely look good.
The plot revolves around a miffed, grudge-bearing military scientist, Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox - incidentally, is it just me or does it seem like any film nowadays that doesn't have Brian Cox has Colin Farrell? It seems like it can't be long until they end up in a film together, though my theory is that if they do, there will be some sport of implosion and the world will end. But I digress), and his plans to eradicate mutants from the planet. Now, Stryker doesn't like Professor X very much (or any other mutants, for that matter), having slightly less good-feeling toward him than most people have towards cancer. The reason for his particular disdain for the wheelchair-bound, patriarchal prof becomes apparent, however, when we learn that Stryker's own son, Jason, was a mutant, and formerly a pupil of Xavier's school. Stryker had expected Xavier to 'cure' his son, by which he really meant make him 'not a mutant', but instead the Professor tried to teach Jason to make full use of his powers. Unfortunately, this didn't go too successfully, and Xavier has considered his work with Stryker Jnr. as a massive failure.
Using an engineered mutant assassination attempt (the opening scene of the film, with Alan Cumming's blue-skinned new mutant Nightcrawler moving and teleporting with impressive speed through the White House to the Oval Office) on the president's life to persuade the president to give him the authority he needs, Stryker sets about invading Xavier's School for the Gifted with many, many soldiers. Most of the teachers (who are, of course, the X-Men) are out of town, but one very dangerous individual remains. Yup, you guessed it - Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who really gets stuck in (groan) to the hostile forces.
Wolverine, the most popular character in the comics, is again the central character in the movie, as he sets about trying to find out more about his past. And when he does find out, he quickly begins to wish he hadn't. More important than his journey of discovery, though, is his continued evolution, begun in the first instalment, from a self-centred loner with a quick temper to part of the X-Men family, with friends and concerns outside of 'looking after numero uno'. Indeed, the importance of friends is one of the main themes of X2.
By no means is the story all about Wolverine, though. Nor could it be, with so many main speaking parts. Surprisingly, given the number of characters, X2 doesn't feel too cluttered, Singer having given each character something worthwhile to do in the film. This includes Jean Grey's (Famke Jannssen) focusing of her burgeoning telekinetic and telepathic powers, the continued tense atmosphere surrounding Jean, Wolverine and Cyclops (James Marsden), a blossoming romance between Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Rogue (Anna Paquin).
New characters include the aforementioned Nightcrawler, Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), another adamantium-skeletoned mutant like Wolverine, and an enlarged role for Rebecca Romijn-Stamos's Mystique (which even gets to see her appear as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, unencumbered by blue paint, in an amusing pastiche of her role in Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale).
Ian McKellen's reprisal of his Malcolm X-like role as Magneto (in contrast to Patrick Stewart's Martin Luther King Jnr. analogue Professor X) is smaller than in X-Men, but still important, as Magneto and his cronies are forced to join forces with the X-Men to counter the mutual threat posed to them by Stryker. We even manage to feel sympathy for Magneto at one point, when we see him at Stryker's tender mercy in his prison cell. This dissolves by the end of the movie, though, as he gets up to his old tricks, and even manages to create some discord amongst the X-Men.
Singer's direction is slick, and the film well-paced. The addition this time round of Singer's preferred cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel (who had other obligations at the time of shooting of the first film), has aided the cause too, with some terrific shots on view throughout. Add to this an excellent ensemble performance, impressive action sequences, and thought-provoking themes. What makes this a cut above most action-fare, though, is that is has a darker edge.
Singer has really excelled in making the movie completely enjoyable on every level - if you so desire, you can put your brain into neutral and cruise through it, giggling and pointing at the screen while making the occasional 'Wow!' sound, or really consider the social themes, some of which are particularly relevant given the events in the middle-east in the past few months. One particularly good scene involves Iceman telling his (thus far) unaware parents that he is a mutant, which mirrors closely the difficulties of a young man telling his family that he is gay. The response is plausible for the theme too - "Have you tried not being a mutant?" his mother asks him.
All in all, X2 is massively enjoyable, and got so much right that X-Men got wrong. Go see it. That's an order, soldier.
If anyone were going to listen to me, I'd give X2 5 out of a possible 5 Combined Goodness Units.
Brian Cox (Colonel William Stryker)
Ian McKellen (Magneto)
Patrick Stewart (Professor X)
Halle Berry (Storm)
Famke Janssen (Jean Grey)