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X-Men   B+

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: David Hayter
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park, Bruce Davison, Tyler Mane.

Review by Rob Vaux

As stars of the most popular comic books in the world, the X-Men have always been a two-edged sword. On the one hand, the comics often featured solid characters, smart plots, and a unique take on the nature of prejudice. On the other hand, they just as often fell victim to cheap gimmicks, trashy stories, and an overwhelming glut of personalities. For months, advance word on the X-Men feature film was balanced precariously between these two halves. Would it bring the best parts of the comic book to life? Or become another in a long line of homogenized crap? Now that we the film has opened and we can see for ourselves, a round of applause is in order. X-Men delivers the goods.

The X-Men differ from other superheroes in that they're mutants; i.e. born with their powers instead gaining them through radiation or alien technology. It's a bit of a mixed blessing: they have amazing abilities, but they also make the public very uneasy. How can you be safe if your next-door neighbor can knock down walls, or your child's friend shoots laser beams out of his eyes? In the film's "not too distant future," the number of mutants is slowly growing, and so is the public's hysteria. In an effort to counteract that prejudice, a powerful telepath named Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) establishes a school in upstate New York, where young mutants can learn to control their powers and use them for the benefit of mankind. Xavier believes that mutants and normal humans can live in peace, and the school's most elite graduates -- Cyclops (James Marsden), Storm (Halle Berry), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the "X-Men" of the title -- fight to realize that dream.

Not every mutant is as optimistic as they are, however. Some, like the temperamental Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his runaway charge Rogue (Anna Paquin), simply want to be left alone. Others, like Xavier's old friend Magneto (Ian McKellen) take a more direct approach. A survivor of the Nazi death camps, Magneto has no intention of letting humanity create another Holocaust. He has an incredible power -- the ability to manipulate metal at will -- plus "students" of his own to do his bidding: the feral Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and amphibian Toad (Ray Park, Star War's Darth Maul). When a McCarthyist U.S. Senator (Bruce Davison) proposes a bill to register mutants like felons, Magneto launches a plan to teach him -- and the rest of the world -- the error of their ways. Xavier and his students are the only ones who can stop him.

Are you taking notes? There will be a quiz later. With 10 principal characters, complete with powers and personalities, X-Men has a lot of balls to juggle. Everyone must be introduced, the major plot threads expounded upon, and scads of comic-book technology explained, all in a tight 95 minutes. This leads a very cluttered feeling throughout the film. Most of the dialogue is taken up with awkward-but-necessary plot exposition, and viewers who aren't familiar with the comic books may find themselves lost unless they pay close attention.

Luckily, director Bryan Singer has handled complicated plotlines before (notably with The Usual Suspects), and proves quite capable of handling the challenge here. With so much to explain, he wisely focuses on his two outside characters -- Wolverine and Rogue -- to serve as audience surrogates. By unfolding the story through their eyes, Singer allows the necessary exposition to take place without burying the rest of the film beneath it. He punctuates their journey with some smart action scenes and self-effacing humor ("You actually go outside in these things?" Wolverine asks about the X-Men's costumes), while quietly cultivating strong performances from Jackman and Paquin. The three of them keep the film on target and ensure that the clutter never detracts from the fun.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Janssen and Marsden mainly mark time, while Berry's Storm has little to do but blow people through walls, and Sabretooth -- one of the great psychopaths in all of comicdom -- is reduced to a quasi-competent henchman. On the other hand, Romijn-Stamos' Mystique steals more than a few scenes (her fight with Wolverine is a high point), and Park has great fun with the acrobatic Toad. McKellen, of course, is in a class by himself; he injects real humanity into Magneto without sacrificing the proper villain's flourish. McKellen and Stewart have some nice scenes together as old friends now caught in permanent rivalry, and the two reflect a natural intelligence that resonates deeply through the rest of the proceedings.

X-Men isn't a perfect film by any means, but considering the face-clawing depths it could have sunk to, it emerges with flying colors. Singer uses a lot of skill to bring this world to life and takes a thoughtful approach to already solid popcorn material. A breathless pace and some awkward exposition are a small price to pay for such well-made entertainment. Considering the early grosses, we probably haven't seen the last of Marvel's merry mutants; if this movie is any indication, we have a lot to look forward to.

Review published 07.21.2000.

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