X2: X-Men United

WFTB Score: 14/20

The plot: An attack on the American President sees tensions raised between normal humans and those who have evolved superhuman powers, to the point where ex-army man William Stryker conceives of a final solution for all the ‘mutants.’ Professor Charles Xavier is concerned for the fate of his students, which his faithful X-Men – plus a new companion – strive to protect; meanwhile, Xavier’s old friend Eric Lensherr is imprisoned in a plastic cell and seemingly unable to intervene. Of course, all is rarely as it seems where Magneto and his shape-shifting friend Mystique are concerned.

When we left our heroes at the end of 2000’s X-Men, we had been introduced to the good and bad guys, been apprised of the state of play between normal folk and the fractured mutant community, and given an idea of where several of the key players were in their lives. The chief issues were these: firstly, could Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) convince the world that mutants and non-mutants could co-exist without conflict; would the proposed registration scheme from the first film find its way into legislation; or would Eric Lensherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) be able to further his fight against humanity from the confines of his metal-free prison? Secondly, would the imperishable Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) discover more about how he came to have a skeleton, and claws, made of indestructible adamantium? Thirdly, would he claim the love of troubled telepath Dr Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) over rival Cyclops (James Marsden)? And finally, would young Rogue (Anna Paquin) be able to continue her courtship with (n)ice young man Bobby, when she literally drains the life out of everyone she touches?

Bryan Singer bravely chooses to tackle all these questions and a few more in X2. The film begins with an attack on the President by Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a blue, tattooed teleporter. Though the President is essentially unharmed, the incident provides the opportunity William Stryker (Brian Cox) needs to take charge and enact his plan to shut down mutants wherever he can find them. As Jean and Storm (Halle Berry) jet off to find Nightcrawler, Stryker extracts information from Magneto and lures Professor X and Cyclops away from his school for the gifted, with the plan of storming it; with Wolverine looking after the building, however, and some exceptionally capable students prepared to stand up and fight, this is easier said than done.

Meanwhile, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) has been following political affairs by taking the form of Senator Kelly, but when called upon imitates a variety of people to set Magneto free and gain access to Stryker’s plans, which involve recreating Xavier’s mutant-locating machine Cerbero in the Alkali Lake facility and getting the professor – whilst under the control of Stryker’s mutant son Jason – to find and kill the mutants in one fell swoop.

The X-Men, accompanied by Magneto (waiting to turn the situation to his advantage), rush to save Xavier and some of his youngest protégés; on the way, Jean Grey, laden with terrible intimations of doom, tears herself away from Wolverine, who has found a link to his past in the sadistic Stryker; and Bobby opens up to his family about his special powers, though their reaction is far from positive. When his friend Pyro meets up with Magneto and finds his brand of militant action appealing, it is left to Bobby and Rogue to rescue the rescuers from the icy waters of the bursting lake.

To start with the positives, X2 never looks less than terrific, the design and effects at all times effective and convincing. Also, as was the case in X-Men, the film brings fine performances from great actors, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen complemented by excellent turns from Jackman, Cumming and especially Brian Cox as the despicable, deceitful Stryker, a character brilliantly motivated by personal disappointment. He plays a large part in the satisfying main plot which allows for a number of large-scale fight/action sequences, and his knowledge of Wolverine’s past also ties him in neatly to one of the sub-plots. At its best, X2 is amazingly good at stating its metaphorical case for the acceptance of difference, whilst providing top-drawer comic book entertainment.

With a running time of over two hours it’s not surprise that the film is not always at its best, and the film does lapse into talky periods; some of these, whether it’s Bobby ‘coming out’ to his parents, Pyro’s struggles with the Dark Side (to borrow a phrase), or Nightcrawler discussing his faith with Storm, stand out for being too obviously symbolic, the sentiments glaring and drifting towards cliché.

Furthermore, for the length of the film some of the characters still get very short shrift, with Storm reduced to a few brief (if important) scenes and Cyclops almost elbowed completely out of the picture. For all his abilities, Xavier is little more than a puppet most of the time, and even Wolverine suffers from a reduced share of the story, although he is the prime mover in the escape from the school and gets a one-on-one with Kelly Hu’s underused Deathstrike.

By contrast, a disproportionate amount of time is given over to Mystique; lovely though Ms Romijn-Stamos may be, she solves altogether too many of the mutants’ problems. If she can copy everyone else, why bother lugging everyone else around? Finally, whilst the story is pretty watertight, I have a few pedantic gripes (the sort you should probably overlook in comic-book adaptations): at the beginning we see Wolverine unsuccessfully looking for clues at Alkali Lake, because he only searches for things at ground level – having taken the trouble to get all the way there, would he not have had a really good look around? And having spent so much time watching one release the other, it would be nice to see where Magneto and Mystique end up once they make their way away from the dam.

In terms of the scale of its story, X2 exceeds the original and delivers the action to the screen with an enormous amount of flair and one or two more story lines than it needs. Some will find new favourites amongst the mutants and wish others had been promoted or relegated to more or less prominent positions, but for my money Singer has got the balance just about right.

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