Review: "X-Men: The Last Stand"
Bryan Singer guided two "X-Men" films to worldwide grosses of $700 million. But the latest installment of the "X-Men" saga, "The Last Stand" (opening May 26 throughout San Diego) has a new director at the helm, Brett Ratner. Will fans stand with Singer or join up with the new leader, Ratner?
A funny thing happened to the superheroes of "X-Men" and "Superman" on the way to the big screen. Over at Fox, Bryan Singer -- the hot shot young director of "The Usual Suspects" and the man who directed the first two "X-Men" films -- was prepping the third film of the "X-Men" saga. But Warner Brothers lured Singer to come over and help them with their troubled "Superman" franchise that had been languishing in development for more than a decade. Singer, who grew up watching and loving the old George Reeves "Superman" TV show, had long harbored a desire to make a Man of Steel film. So he left Fox and the X-Men for Warners and the inhabitants of Metropolis. Singer had hoped that Fox would table "X-Men 3" until he got "Superman" out of his system, but the studio wasn't that patient. They turned to Brett Ratner to take over "X-Men"
Ironically, though, Ratner had been over at Warner Brothers preparing the "Superman" movie. X-Men" fans loved Singer, whom they felt had done Marvel's "X-Men" justice in the first two films. However, fans have been a bit skeptical about Ratner who had no background in comics-based movies. His claim to fame is directing the three "Rush Hour" films.
"The Last Stand" picks up the "X-Men" saga where it left off in X-Men United. In case you don't know, the X-Men are a team of mutants each boasting special powers because of a genetic mutation. In the previous film, one of the team members, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) was left for dead at a lake where the X-Men had their previous last stand. Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden) has taken her death pretty hard and isn't quite the team leader he used to be. This means that Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) have had to step up to the plate to help Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) run his school for gifted -- read mutant -- children. As the team mourns Jean's death, they must also face a new dilemma. A "cure" for mutancy has been found and raises some tough questions. Now mutants have a choice: retain the mutancy that gives them unique powers yet isolates and alienates them, or choose to correct their genetic disorder, lose their powers and become human.
Dr. Xavier and his arch nemesis Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan still enjoying himself immensely in the role) both insist that mutancy is not a disease that needs to be cured. But the two former colleagues take very different tacks in opposing this so-called cure. Dr. Xavier preaches tolerance and seeks to educate the public while at the same time training mutants to control their powers and use them for good. Magneto, on the other hand, wants mutants to take a stand and use their powers to dominate the humans whom he believes merely want to exterminate the mutant race. So Magneto gathers up the strongest mutants he can find (including footballer Vinnie Jones as the lumbering Juggernaut), and decides to wage a war to end all wars. To complicate the situation, Jean Grey rises from the dead as her unstable alter ego Phoenix, and proves to be a level 5 mutant with powers that could destroy the world. The outcome of the battle may depend on which side Jean/Phoenix chooses to be on.
Marvel Comics' Stan Lee (who makes his traditional cameo appearance in an early scene as a man watering his lawn) created the X-Men during the civil rights upheaval of the 1960s. That real life social unrest colors the fantasy world of the X-Men who are all mutants segregated from the rest of society and feeling the sting of prejudice just because they're different. Lee's gallery of comic book characters -- Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, the X-Men -- always display a bit of angst, a smart-alecky attitude and antisocial inclinations. That's what made them different from DC Comics' Superman and Justice League characters. And that's what has always appealed to me about Marvel's superheroes; they always seemed a bit flawed and troubled. But neither Singer's films nor this new one by Brett Ratner really taps into that in a satisfying manner.
On the big screen, the X-Men's angst has been transformed into sappy sentimentality, and only occasionally do the characters get the sarcasm right. Plus, they're constantly getting their butts kicked by Magneto and his mutants. And, yet again, the filmmakers have chosen to simplify the themes of a comic in order to bring them to the big screen. In the "X-Men" comics, there were parallels, for instance, between the Magneto-Xavier relationship and the Malcolm X-Martin Luther King Jr. one. In this respect and many others, the "X-Men" films have repeatedly missed a chance to make a comic book film with some resonance about prejudice and being different, but they fail to play up what's in the comic and even what was in the old kids' TV cartoon. Instead, the films have opted for a simplified action format that emphasizes blowing things up and turns themes into cliches.
To be fair, though, "The Last Stand" begins with some fun and allows characters like Wolverine to rattle off some snappy one-liners before the film succumbs to bloated special effects. One such effect is a set piece from the final battle involving Magneto detaching the Golden Gate Bridge and moving it so that his mutant troops can invade Alcatraz where the mutant cure is being produced. The long, overblown scene is pointless as these talented mutants should have been able to find a faster more elegant means of crossing over. Plus, the film strains credibility. Granted it is a comic book fantasy, but even fantasies have to stick to the rules or logic of their own created universe, and a lot of what goes on in "The Last Stand" just doesn't make sense. In addition to the Golden Gate Bridge incident, it doesn't make sense that the government imprisons highly dangerous mutants that keep escaping and killing people yet doesn't simply inject them with "the cure" to render them human and harmless. Plus the whole end battle is just a messy display of special effects that makes Magneto look like a very bad general on the field.
"X-Men" is exactly the kind of film that should have been handed over to a Hong Kong director like Ronny Yu (who made "The Bride with White Hair" in Hong Kong and "The Bride of Chucky"in the U.S.), someone with a visual style not rooted in reality and who can make people fly as if it were the most natural thing. But Ratner -- who may have worked with Jackie Chan on the "Rush Hour" films but hasn't seemed to learn anything about action from him -- makes people levitate and fly with artificial stiffness. "X-Men" films also suffer from the fact that there just seems to be too many characters and you never really get to know any one with much depth. For this film they added my personal favorite'Hank McCoy/Beast, the literate, furry blue mutant. Kelsey Grammer, who's played TV's most literate and sometimes pompous character of Frasier Crane, is aptly cast as Beast. But again he has little time to display the contrasting traits that made the character so appealing in the comics. This problem may be addressed as the "X-Men" saga comes to an end. But don't fear. If you watch through till the very end of the film (past the credits) you'll realize that Fox isn't ready to call it quits on the X-Men.
"The Last Stand" is supposedly the last "X-Men" film. What follows will be spin offs of the individual characters. So far Magneto (in a film that looks back to how he and Xavier met and grew apart) and Wolverine are the two top contenders for their own films. "X-Men: The Last Stand" (rated PG-13 for action violence) is big and noisy but only occasionally fun. I have to confess, though, that I haven't been able to connect to any of the "X-Men" films in the way that I have been able to with "Spider-Man," "Blade," or "Hellboy." Those are comics-based films that got it right.