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X-Men 2   B+

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Daniel P. Harris, Michael Dougherty, Bryan Singer
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Bruce Davison, Anna Paquin, Kelly Hu.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's amazing what a little success will do. Three years ago, comic book adaptations were considered a big risk, and even a talent like Bryan Singer had to play by carefully constrained rules. His screen version of Uncanny X-Men was solid and well-executed, but represented a significant gamble, which the studio hedged on by trimming the running length and altering a few important details. But lo and behold, it became a big hit, and now superheroes are running amok at the multiplex. So when Singer returned to helm the X-Men sequel (with the inanely simplistic title X2), he doubtless found the leash a little looser. The result is an improved film in many ways: richer, more complicated, and just as true to the best parts of the source material.

The first film's principal difficulty was too many characters and too little time. It managed to work around the bind, but the breathless pace held it back a bit. X2 has just as many merry mutants to keep track of, but with an additional 40 minutes it can develop them patiently instead of throwing them at us in a rush. The first film told us everything we needed to know, with super-powered mutants coexisting uneasily alongside the "normal" humans they seem destined to replace. Professor Xavier's (Patrick Stewart) noble X-Men sought harmony with mankind, while the imprisoned Magneto (Ian McKellen) worked to subjugate and eventually replace the "inferior" Homo sapiens. With those details out of the way, X2 is free to jump right in and start things with a bang (or more accurately, a "bamf"). During a tour of the White House, a teleporting mutant named Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) launches a spectacular attack that will have longtime fans cackling with glee. In response, the President authorizes a counterstrike on a "terrorist training facility" in upstate New York -- Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. The X-Men and their young charges soon find themselves under attack from Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox), a normal human with some very nasty plans for the mutant population.

As with the first film, X2 uses its characters as the fulcrum for the action and effects, rather than the other way around. The bells and whistles are terrific -- first-rate special effects abound -- but they always feel like they serve a deeper purpose, something more than just juicing up the audience. By carefully developing the large cast, the film centers our attention on their feelings and motivations, rather than just taking them for granted. The choice of an ordinary human villain is shrewd, suggesting a strong basis for the mutants' sense of persecution, and Cox does a terrific job lending plausible details to Stryker's anger. His actions force the mutants to work together, entering into a shaky alliance with their enemy Magneto (whose escape from prison is another showstopper) in order to halt Stryker's surprisingly complicated scheme. The three-way tension ensures plenty of opportunities for Singer to explore this comic-book world's unique take on prejudice, and his knack for complex plotting ensures that such exploration never gets dull.

The cast acquits themselves more or less admirably, and X2 smartly moves the less interesting figures to the background, allowing the big hitters to strut their stuff. McKellen takes a surprisingly campy approach to Magneto, while Stewart seems considerably more at ease here than he did in the last Star Trek film. Hugh Jackman returns to form as the X-Men's loose cannon Wolverine (whose murky background is tied to Stryker), and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos steals the show -- again -- as Magneto's shape-changing minion Mystique. Cumming, too, provides an intriguing presence as Nightcrawler, whose demonic visage hides a pious and thoughtful soul. He has a few lovely little moments with Halle Berry (reprising her role as the weather witch Storm), which gives her character some much-needed heft as well. Indeed, X2 has a number of lovely little moments, and the well-tuned script frees it from the laborious plot exposition that hounded its predecessor, providing plenty of tart lines for the cast to feast upon.

The film's primary (and really only) failing comes in the climax, which is too drawn out and labors far more than it should. Here, Singer's pacing falls short, leaving a series of arbitrary emotional punches that closes things on an awkward note. It will please diehards to no end, but raises too many troublesome questions to truly satisfy anyone else. A few other shadows occasionally cloud the proceedings, keeping X2 from knocking us dead the way it could. But if greatness eludes it, it remains sure-footed and dependable nonetheless, an exemplary roller-coaster ride that expands and enhances the work that came before it. Fox seems to have a first-rate franchise on its hands, and if Singer stays at the helm, there's every reason to hope for more good things to come.

Review published 04.29.2003.

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