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X-MEN

Review by Andrew Manning (7/00)

Release: 2000, 20th Century Fox
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Bruce Davison, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn
Director: Bryan Singer
MPAA Rating: [PG-13] violence, language, sexuality
Genre: Action/Science Fiction/Drama


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SUMMARY

When a handful of humans begin to manifest genetic changes that give them uncanny superpowers, they are dubbed as "mutants" and feared and reviled by the rest of society. Eventually, the mutants drift into two separate and opposing factions. The first, the Brotherhood of Mutants, is led by the powerful Magneto (McKellen), a mutant who believes they must destroy humans before humans destroy them. The second, the X-Men, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Stewart), believe that the Brotherhood must be stopped so that humans and mutants can co-exist in harmony. Based on one of the most popular comic books in history, the X-Men movie chronicles the early days of these mutants and the brewing war between their two factions and the rest of humanity.

THE SUDDEN RUNDOWN

Action, adventure, cool special effects, a first rate cast, and a strong story to boot--I can't say enough good things about this movie!

WHAT'S GOOD

I've come to the realization that comic books get a bum rap. Most of us assume that comics are for kids and thirty year old losers still living in their parents' basement. We assume they have overly simplistic stories, and when crappy movies like Batman and Robin and The Phantom come out, we say, "See! Comics suck!" But X-Men disproves that stereotype with an absolutely excellent mix of eye-popping action and a great story. My new perspective is that writers of the best comics put the majority of Hollywood scribes to shame.

The central story of X-Men is one of prejudice and intolerance. But instead of examining things like racism directly, the story uses mutants as its main metaphor. The basic idea is that in all humans, there exists the genetic potential to evolve to a higher level of being. In the near future, some people have begun to exhibit this next step in evolution, but most have not. As such, the majority of humanity fears these so-called mutants because they don't understand them.

Leading the march of intolerance is Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), a Republican senator who is pushing for a bill that would make it a requirement for all mutants to register their mutant status. His reasoning is that disclosure of abnormal powers would make society a safer place. Armed with fear, Senator Kelly's main objective is to single out anyone who begins to exhibit the unexplained. While some humans are opposed to Kelly's McCarthy-esque witchhunt, many others support him. As with all minority groups, the mutants find themselves the targets of violence and hatred.

To oppose the ignorant actions of the humans, a mutant named Magneto (Ian McKellen) forms the Brotherhood of Mutants. He believes very strongly that mutants are the superior form of humans, and that they must be allowed to persevere--at whatever the cost. Because he has witnessed the tragic events of human history, he knows first hand what humans are capable of. His solution is therefore a preemptive strike: the mutants must lash out and destroy all humans before humans can destroy them. Meanwhile, Magneto's old friend, another powerful mutant named Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), takes a different approach to the whole situation. He realizes humans fear mutants, but he believes that education and compassion are the keys, and that the two races can co-exist peacefully. He forms a school where youngsters who exhibit the evolution can explore their powers and learn to control them. Within the school, he forms the X-Men, a group of mutants trained to battle the Brotherhood.

This establishes three main groups in the movie: the Brotherhood, the X-Men, and humans, each one dangerous in their own way. It also puts the X-Men in a very interesting position, as they are out to defend the very humans who want to see them dead.

The cast of characters is interesting, and all of the main actors and actresses are wonderful. There's not a single weak link in the entire ensemble. The good guys: Professor Charles Xavier, though wheelchair bound, has the power to enter anyone's mind; Jean Grey (played smart and sexy by Famke Janssen) is a psychic who can move objects with her thoughts; Cyclops (James Marsden) shoots destructive beams of light from his eyes; Storm (Halle Berry) has the power to control the weather; Rogue (Anna Paquin) can draw the lifeforce out of anyone she touches and mimic their power.

The bad guys: Magneto has power over everything metal; Toad (played by Ray Park, Darth Maul from The Phantom Menace) scales walls like Spider-Man and spits venom; Sabertooth (Tyler Mane) has super strength, cat-like agility, and the power to heal his wounds quickly; Mystique (Rebecca Romijn wearing only blue paint, basically) is a martial artist that can shapeshift into anyone. In the middle of the conflict between the X-Men and the Brotherhood is Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), a mutant with the power to self-heal spontaneously, a skeleton coated with a virtually unbreakable metal, and deadly claws that spring from the back of his hand.

As one of the central characters, it is through Wolverine that the audience sees both sides of the story. He's torn between the two factions. On the one hand, he doesn't agree with Magneto's doctrine of violence and survival at all costs, but on the other hand, he doesn't agree with Xavier's pacifist approach to defend those that hate him. Wolverine is a loner, and a tragic figure, and his psychological complexity adds to the strong story at the heart of X-Men.

Two relationships are of particular note. The first is the one between Magneto and Xavier. Actors Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart have the strongest dramatic scenes in the whole movie, and I was absolutely glued to my seat with their interaction. They are former friends who have a severe difference in opinions, and because of those opinions, they are willing to go to war with one other. Magneto is a very interesting character because unlike some of his underlings, he's not completely evil--or, at least, you get the sense that there is a purpose to his evil. We've seen typical villains in other movies who just want to rule the world or get money--but how about a villain who is fighting for self-preservation? Magneto has a very good point that humans have an amazing capacity for evil and depravity themselves, so a part of you always sides with him. Add Wolverine's confusion over which side to join, and you've got great conflict over who's right. In addition, both McKellen and Stewart are just great actors, and their scenes together are first rate.

The second relationship of note is the one between Wolverine and Rogue. Unlike the comic book, in which Rogue is a voluptuous woman who doesn't take crap, Rogue played by Anna Paquin is a confused youngster who feels isolated from everyone else, because every time she touches someone, she drains their lifeforce (as she solemnly recollects, "the first boy I ever kissed ended up in a coma for three weeks"). Her isolation is a burden that was cast upon her, as opposed to Wolverine's isolation, which is more self-inflicted. But because of her particularly outcast status, Wolverine relates to her, and is really the only character he opens up to. He views himself as her protector, and that helps to humanize him--which is good, since he's really the one the audience relies on to understand the conflict.

Aside from its very compelling story, X-Men also sports two other major pluses: some of the most intense action scenes you'll see this year, and tons of babes.

In the action department: James Marsden's Cyclops unleashes bad ass armageddon when he fires energy from his eyes. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine has some great action scenes that will no doubt make lots of guys fantasize about shooting razor sharp claws from their hands. Ray Park, the real life martial artist and stunt choreographer who played Darth Maul, elevates his character of Toad from a freakish Quasimodo-ish reject into a deadly acrobat. His moves are wild--he moves with impressive agility, even without the benefit of special effects. Tyler Mane, a tall, imposing actor to begin with, is even scarier with special contact lenses and claws. Rebecca Romijn is wickedly limber and throws out some awesome moves (she's also probably established herself as the physically hardest working supermodel ever). Hell, I've already got her on the ballot for the 2000 Radio Free Movie Awards "Wicked Bitch Vixen" category.

That brings us to X-Men's Babe Factor. Between Famke Janssen (former Bond babe from GoldenEye), Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn, and Anna Paquin (she's legal now, right?), there's enough eye candy for all the guys in the audience.

I enjoyed a certain brief in-joke placed in the movie. When Wolverine complains about the look of the costumes, Cyclops asks, "Well what would you prefer? Yellow spandex?" This is a direct reference to the comics, in which the X-Men typically wear yellow and black outfits that fit tightly in order to show off the dudes' rippling muscles and the chicks' giant racks.

Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil) has helmed a virtually perfect action movie. Hollywood needs to take a major cue. Instead of writing Tom Cruise a $20 million check and cranking out a movie with a weak story like Mission: Impossible 2, do what the creators of X-Men did: find superlative actors without the overblown price tags, use the money on first class visuals that enhance the story instead of replacing it, and frame it all in a thought-provoking script with interesting characters. This should be the damned blueprint for all blockbusters.

I simply can't say enough good things about X-Men. Hoo-wah.


WHAT'S BAD

Unlike Magneto, Senator Kelly came across as pure bad guy, and so wasn't nearly as interesting. Maybe it's because he was a politician, but even when he tried to explain his actions, he still came across as two-faced and untrustworthy. It has the beneficial side effect of making Magneto's case against humanity stronger, but how cool would it have been to have three opposing groups you could relate to very well instead of just two?

I don't want to nitpick, because I never read a single X-Men comic book before they made the series into a movie. I don't want to be like those lameass fanboys complaining about how "true" the movie is to the comics, but I do have two superficial, albeit very minor, complaints:

In the comics, Rogue is a very adult Southern belle woman with big curves--so why cast her as a girl in the movie? I'm not convinced this is wrong, though, because I think the writers were going for an angle that would emphasize Rogue's inability to control her powers. Even in the comic book, I think, the lack of control is a crucial element, so casting her as a young girl--one who is scared of herself--makes her a more tragic character. I won't bitch about it too much, because the more I think about it, the more I think it works...

My second superficial complaint is Mystique's overall look. In my book, Rebecca Romijn's single greatest physical asset is her face--damn, the girl's got a cute head! But with all that makeup, the face is, ironically, the one thing you can't see! I guess I shouldn't complain because there's a lot of other stuff to look at, but the face feels like such a missed opportunity.

I guess if I wanted anything more from X-Men, it would just be more superficial cravings: more action, more babes, more skin, and more babes again!

Seriously, the ensemble of characters had so many interesting stories, that time alone would not permit a satisfyingly deep explanation of them all. I rarely say this about any movie, but I'm going to say it about X-Men: I wish it was longer!


Rating: 9 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)
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