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Triple XXX Entertainment: Xciting, Xhilarating, Xcellent

Dec 22, 2000 (Updated Dec 22, 2000)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Jackman's Wolverine carries the film with his brooding intensity

Cons:Slow build-up; a predictable plot dampens the thrills

When I was a young lad, boys my age kept a stash of comic books under the bed; I, on the other hand, had thick novels by Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and Alexander Dumas. I’ve always been drawn more to the adventures of past-century characters than the post-modern ka-POW! crowd.

So, when I sit down to watch a comic-book movie like X-Men, I come with an empty mind. Some people will tell you I watch everything with an empty mind—but that’s a different matter altogether.

Does not knowing the complicated pulp-page history of X-Men’s mutants stop me from enjoying the movie? Not at all; I know enough to catch the in-joke about yellow spandex and I could dig the psychological torture of possessing the world’s sharpest knuckles. But I think that fans of the long-running comic book series will appreciate the film on a different level than I did. They will be rabid in their analysis of every nuance, every scrap of dialogue, every blue scale on Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ naked body.

Me, I just think it’s a cool movie.

Many have tried to translate comic books to the big screen. Many have failed (Batman/Batman and Robin, Mystery Men); some have been mildly successful (Darkman, The Crow); but few have struck the right balance between ka-POW! entertainment and thoughtful meditation on the tortured superhero inside all of us. That’s right, we’ve all got a little Wolverine buried somewhere deep in our souls; for some, maybe it’s Mystique.

Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) brings a comic-book lover’s passion to the project, treating the story with dignity and giving it time to develop. However, if I was going to lodge a complaint about X-Men, it would be the fact that it took a little too much time developing. Despite its brooding atmosphere, the story doesn’t really start sparking fireworks until well after the one-hour mark and by then those of us who aren’t familiar with the X-Men genealogy might be a little baffled.

There’s a big cast of mutant characters and, with the exception of Wolverine, we know little about them beyond their cool superpowers. From what I’ve heard, several of illustrator Stan Lee’s original characters didn’t even make it to the final cut—and thank goodness for that. One more “special gifted person” and the movie would have diluted into a thin soup of special effects.

As far as action movie plots go, it’s the same old, same old: a tale of good vs. evil, with a little politics sprinkled into the recipe this time.

In this corner, the Good Guys:
Professor X (Patrick Stewart)—Telepathic powers; a peace-loving mutant, he runs a school for freaks who can walk through walls and turn great balls o’ fire into ice.
Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)—Freddy Krueger blades pop out of his knuckles when he gets “emotional;” this power also seems to prevent him from combing his hair.
Rogue (Anna Pacquin)—Sucks the lifeforce out of those she touches; she put a boy in a coma with just one kiss.
Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen)—Telepathic powers; otherwise, she’s just your everyday good-looking babe in career-woman outfits.
Cyclops (James Marsden)—Shoots laser beams with his eye; this explains why he’s borrowing LeVar Burton’s wrap-around sunglasses from Star Trek.
Storm (Halle Berry)—When her eyes glaze over, she can conjure up thunder and lightning; she’s every meteorologist’s wet dream.

Lined up against them are these Bad Guys:
Magneto (Ian McKellen)—Telepathic powers; kind of like the Amazing Randi, he can bend metal with his mind (if you want to throw him in the slammer, better make it a plastic jail).
Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos)—Shape-shifting; she’s blue and naked [that sound you just heard was all the male readers jumping up from their computers and rushing right on down to Blockbuster].
Toad (Ray Park)—Green-complexion, hopping abilities, a thirty-foot tongue; he’s Gene Simmons’ wet dream.
Sabretooth (the appropriately-named Tyler Mane)—Uncanny strength; he looks like he’s still upset about not being cast in the Beauty and the Beast TV series.
Senator Robert Jefferson Kelly (Bruce Davison)—Republican.

The basic setup is this: In the not-too-distant future, evolution has taken some, um, interesting detours. It’s leaped forward in ways that Darwin could never have predicted. Human mutants are suddenly popping up everywhere and the Senate, led by the McCarthy-like Sen. Kelly, is debating legislation which would require all mutants to be registered. Not coincidentally, X-Men opens with a scene from the Holocaust. We all know what happened after Nazis started “registering” Jews, homosexuals and gypsies. This kind of slippery slope politics is exactly what Magneto is afraid of; that’s why he wants to eradicate non-mutant humans. Professor X takes a more diplomatic approach, preferring to talk the Republicans out of their madness. At the same time, he’s stockpiling mutant teenagers at his secluded school. I got the feeling that the good professor’s patience with government would eventually reach the snapping point and then he’d open up a can of whoop-mutant on the world.

At the center of the film is Wolverine, a shell-shocked mutant who’s been trying to keep his blades sheathed for years, while living a life as a fighting freak. When we first see him, he’s cold-cocking opponents in a smoky Canadian bar. He’s soon joined by Rogue, a runaway teen completely terrified by her powers. They eventually find shelter at Professor X’s school where they discover a whole subculture of other gifted humans. At this point, the slow-building movie kicks into high gear as Prof. X launches into a head-spinning exposition of mutants vs. Republicans. He also gives Wolverine and Rogue a tour of the underground tunnels of the school, ending up in a huge chamber called Cerebro. At this point, X-Men gets decidedly retro as X dons a helmet which looks like a reject from an old Flash Gordon movie. Evidently, Cerebro helps him to telepathically track the movements of everyone but Magneto (a superpower I wouldn’t mind having, by the way, when I’m wondering what’s taking the pizza delivery guy so long to get to my house).

Predictably, the whole she-bang comes down to a superfight between superpowered superhumans. I wasn’t super-surprised.

Oh yeah, the climactic struggle takes place during a U.N. summit on Ellis Island. You can bet the Statue of Liberty gets to see a little action.

Despite the predictable premise, despite the wildly inconsistent accents employed by Berry and Pacquin, despite the cheesy Ming the Merciless costumes, I enjoyed X-Men (and coming from a non-comic book lover, that’s high praise indeed). As he proved in The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, Singer knows how to create atmosphere in a film. This is one of the most restrained superhero flicks I’ve ever seen (none of the over-the-top Batman antics here) and this non-conformity goes a long way toward making it a cerebral experience (not to be confused with a Cerebro experience).

With the exception of the aforementioned Berry and Pacquin, the entire cast is first-rate. Stewart and McKellen add British dignity and class in the midst of all the Hollywood special effects; Marsden does a lot with the little bit of character development the script allows; and Janssen…well, what else can you say about the Most Beautiful Woman Working in Hollywood these days? Thank goodness, the producers had the good sense not to cover her in blue paint.

However, the real standout—and the source of the film’s energy—is Jackman in a role that should bring him as much attention as his fellow Aussie Russell Crowe. The actor goes beyond the muttonchops and spiked knuckles to bring us the portrait of a psychologically tortured superhero. He prowls across the screen with feral intensity and makes every scene worth watching. Take all the brooding method acting of Val Kilmer, Michael Keaton and George Clooney and throw it in the trashcan. Jackman creates a sympathetic, accessible character, someone for whom you feel compassion and pity. Just don’t try hugging the blade-fingered fellow.

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DVDetails
The extras package is sure to please die-hard fans of both the comic book and the movie. Me, I was relatively unimpressed. There’s a handful of deleted scenes which only prove the value of a good pair of scissors in the hands of a film editor. For one thing, Halle Berry gets to show off a lot more of her dialogue stylings; I say, the fewer the words from her mouth, the better. On the other hand, there’s a lot more of Famke Janssen in the deleted scenes; this is always a good thing. The extras also include an interview between director Bryan Singer and talk show host Charlie Rose; a featurette called “Mutant Watch” which is a mock-CNN expose of the Senate hearings over the Mutant Registration Act; and a screen test for Hugh Jackman. He and Anna Pacquin rehearse the scene just before he goes through the windshield of the truck he’s driving. Even before he got the part, you can see the intensity burning through Jackman’s line-reading. There’s also a audio-track commentary by Singer but, in all honesty, I was so bored by the rest of the extras, I didn’t bother listening to it.


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