Another madman, another plan for global domination. Only the X-Men can save us!
X-Men is one of Marvel's most successful comic book franchises, spawning everything from cartoons to videogames and no doubt pyjamas. Like Spider-man it took some time to materialise as a motion picture, but once it did it sparked the recent trend for comic translations to the big screen due to it's massive success. Bryan Singer, director of The Usual Suspects seemed an odd choice to direct at the time, but in retrospect it has proven a wise decision indeed.
If, like me, you have never read an X-Men comic in your puff do not be put off by the film's origins. It really is a rather enjoyable little romp even if you're not a big comic fan. A short pre-credits preamble spoken by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) informs us that evolution is an incredibly slow process, but that once every few millennia it takes a significant leap forward. Essentially we're being told to suspend our belief for two hours, because the idea is a rather silly one. The existence of these genetically superior 'Mutants' is the basis of the X-Men universe, with essentially two factions; good and evil mutants either striving to protect mankind or destroy it respectively using their uncanny powers. Clap-trap, no doubt, but it's an idea that works well for the comic's and hence the movie's central theme of racial tolerance and abuse of power.
The film opens proper in Poland circa 1944 where a column of Jews is being taken to the gas chambers by a Nazi patrol. A young boy is separated from his father and mother, and in attempting to reach them he is held back by the troopers as they shut the camp's massive iron gates behind the doomed Jews. Understandably upset by all this, the young lad, crying out in distress, reaches out for the gates and bends them through sheer willpower alone, confounding his restrainers and only ceasing when one of them smacks him in the chops with the butt of a rifle. The boy, it will later transpire, is Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, AKA Magneto (the brilliant Ian McKellen), and more of him later.
Next we cut to Mississippi in "the near future", where a young girl is given the shock of her life when she attempts to kiss her boyfriend for the first time and his face quite literally shrivels up like a prune. No, it's not bad breath, the lass is Marie, who will later be known as Rogue (Anna Paquin), another mutant whose unique ability is to absorb the life force from anyone she touches. She gets a tad scared, having almost killed her lad and all, and flees from her parents in tears.
Another short hop, and now we're at a Senate hearing where Dr. Jean Gray (Famke Janssen) is addressing the congress on the dangers of Mutant Registration. She is opposed and verbally beaten down by Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) who seems to have the backing of the majority who are suspicious of the mutants and their powers, and who wish for the identities of all mutants to be made public. After the hearing, Xavier has an encounter with Magneto, the pair both in their latter years now. They have a short conversation where Xavier tries to convince his old friend that mankind has evolved from the atrocities of the war era, but Magneto, obviously still with a Nazi-shaped chip on his shoulder dismisses this and issues a thinly veiled warning to Xavier not to get in his way. Seems like something sinister is on the boil in the mutant world. "We are the future, Charles, not them. They no longer matter", he announces as he walks away. Whatever could it be? A plan for world domination perhaps? Mwah-ha-ha!
Cut to Alberta, Canada, where a wandering Rogue encounters a heavy-handed metaphor. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman in the role of the coolest and most famous of the X-Men), is being exploited, fighting for money inside a cag in a redneck, truck-stop bar. After a disgruntled punter suggests he might not be what he seems, a minor fracas ensues where a clearly miffed Wolverine holds a couple of hicks at knifepoint with blades that sprout from between his fingers, slicing the bar-owners shotgun clean in two whilst he's at it. Deciding this isn't the friendliest place to stay, he legs it in his pickup truck, concealed in the back of which is Rogue.
Initially the grumpy Wolverine is quite wary of his young stowaway, and we get the distinct impression he's not the most sociable of people, but gradually over the course of the movie the pairing provide the emotional heart of the movie, with Rogue eventually teaching Logan (as we learn he is called) the value of friendship and caring. After a brief journey, Logan crashes the pickup and is ambushed by a large fellow who looks like a cross between Michael Bolton and a werewolf. It's none other than Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), one of Magneto's henchmen despatched to capture Wolverine, but he escapes when he and Rogue are rescued by Jean Gray and her lover Cyclops (James Marsden), who take them both back to Xaviers institute for mutants.
The institute is where the X-Men tutor young mutants in coping with their abilities and the tolerance of mankind. We're given a bit of exposition by Xavier, who, we learn, has the ability to read minds. He offers Wolverine an opportunity; give him 48 hours to find out what Magneto wants with Logan and he'll help him remember what happened to turn him into an adamantium-enhanced killing machine.
Senator Kelly is meantime kidnapped by Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), another of Magneto's sidekicks who has the power to take on the appearance of anyone she chooses. In a lesson on tolerance, Magneto turns the senator into a big lump of human jelly as part of his nefarious plot to destroy the ignorant human race and claim the world for mutants. The Senator escapes, however, and washes up on a beach looking somewhat like the jellyfish a playful child is symbolically poking with a stick nearby. He's taken in by Xavier and co., but disintegrates into a puddle before their very eyes.
And so the story continues. Can the X-Men stop Magneto before he realises his masterplan? Just where did Wolverine come from, why does Magneto want him, and will he ever learn to stop irritating people? Of course the story is completely nonsensical and anyone who cannot tolerate a bit of escapism might as well steer well clear. Give it half a chance though, and you'll discover that X-Men deals with some pretty big themes in a mature yet entertaining manner.
Any other director might well have turned this into a brainless action-fx romp, but Singer's no stranger to character, as proven by The Usual Suspects, and here he chooses to maximise on developing this rather than all-out action. Like Sam Raimi's treatment of Spider-Man, Singer is obviously aware that the key to having an audience accept a tale as preposterous as this is to make them care about the cast rather than frazzle their corneas at every available opportunity.
As cool as the entire cast may be, it's Jackman who hit the jackpot in landing the role of Wolverine, originally offered to Scots actor Dougray Scott who turned it down due to obligations in filming Mission: Impossible 2, the fool. Seizing the opportunity, the antipodean actor injects Wolverine with all the necessary cool and masculine posturing he needs, whilst allowing just the right amount of humour to be poked at him. Hence over time as he warms to Rogue and becomes her protector, he also becomes more tolerant and will eventually have you rooting for him in the movie's climactic battle. The relationship between the two is really key to the movie's grounding, and it's handled believably and responsibly by both Jackman and Paquin, leaving just enough of an edge to keep it interesting.
The other X-Men too are admirably portrayed, with Stewart and McKellen in particular giving the film some real performance kudos. It's perhaps a little unfortunate that Magneto's men don't get as much attention in the development department as the good guys, but with so much spectacle on offer it's an understandable oversight. The banter between Cyclops and Wolverine is also another highlight, providing a superbly humorous counterpoint to the more serious business of ass-kicking. At one point, having been imitated by Mystique, Wolverine runs into the gang and is queried by Cyclops who asks him to prove his identity. "You're a dick", says Wolverine, to which a satisfied Cyclops replies merely "Okay".
Purists of the comic will delight in the numerous joking references to the original material, which should hopefully pacify their doubts about the slicker, more stylish look of the movie. It's obvious that Singer is trying to treat these fans with respect whilst making the material as accessible to the rest of us as possible, and he succeeds admirably in doing so.
The effects of the movie are well up to scratch also, easily standing up to anything else around. Like both Blade 2 and Spider-man, there's one scene where CG stuntwork is employed and unfortunately looks rather cheesy, but by and large everything else is faultless, and gives the superhuman, mutant-enhanced action a much needed edge of believability.
Fans of the comic will most likely be chuffed to the nines by this adaptation, and similarly the film will probably have created a few more itself out of those who have never read the series before. The ending is naturally left wide open for the impending sequel, with Magneto imprisoned in a plastic compound, Mystique still alive and Logan heading off to try and discover more about his origins. This is one instance, however, where I doubt anyone will be complaining about the extension of the franchise, given that Singer is to direct the next (and possibly a third) instalment. Bring it on.
Disko sticks four out of five adamantium blades up in the air, and so his judgement is passed.
Ian McKellen (Erik Magnus Lehnsherr/Magneto)
Hugh Jackman (Logan/Wolverine)