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X-Men: The Last Stand B-
Year Released: 2006
Consider, for a moment, the Part Threes of the world. By the time a franchise reaches its third installment, it's getting ready to fall apart. A better-than-average Part Two (like, say, X2) can lead to feelings of confidence and optimism, which typically precedes a vault straight off the cliff. Even when a Part Three doesn't unleash torrents of raw, unfiltered Stinky, the best it can hope for is pedestrian entertainment. Return of the Jedi? Pretty pedestrian. Star Trek III? Back to the Future III? Pedestrian both. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? A touch above pedestrian, but not by much. The only two genuinely great Part Threes on record -- Guy Hamilton's Goldfinger and Peter Jackson's The Return of the King -- are far more the exception than the rule. And yet so many other third movements are utterly irredeemable -- so many mark the beginning of the end for their respective series -- that "pedestrian" can be viewed as a real victory. It may not be great, but at least it doesn't make you want to throw up in your mouth.
You can add X-Men: The Last Stand to the list of Pedestrian Part Threes: hardly an immortal pantheon, but far preferable to the alternative. The fans gnashed their teeth over the replacement of director Bryan Singer with Brett Ratner, and some of their fears turn out to be justified. Ratner lacks his predecessor's flair and storytelling instincts. His camerawork often does more harm than good, his emotional center never finds itself, and moments intended to inspire wonderment have a disturbing tendency to fall flat. But he clearly adores these figures and endeavors to do right by them the best way he knows how. If he can't honor them the way Singer did, at least he prevents them from slipping into the abyss.
He also keeps the film's meaty subtext intact (if somewhat unfulfilled), which is no mean feat when mayhem and explosions are the order of the day. The dilemma for Marvel's merry mutants this go-round is a purported "cure" for their condition: a synthesized chemical that can permanently suppress the X-gene that gives them their powers. The ethical implications are obvious -- is it wrong to be different? is conformity preferable to individuality? can one propose to "fix" what God has wrought? -- and draw firm, broad lines for the film's titular conflict. Series villain Magneto (Ian McKellen) has no doubts where he stands, viewing the cure as a new holocaust and thus a chance to unleash the full extent of his righteous fury. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his X-Men, however, view things more diplomatically, which Magneto considers nothing less than genetic treason.
To this, X3 adds the expected return of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who died in the second installment, but is resurrected here in a reinterpretation of the comics' famous Dark Phoenix storyline. Credit Ratner and screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn (whose grasp of dialogue could certainly be better) with melding it elegantly to the remainder of the film. They get plenty of aid from McKellen, rocking the house as always, and from Hugh Jackman, who, as Jean's unrequited lover Wolverine, has long been the lynchpin of this series. Jackman's in a pretty good groove here, generating credible sparks with Janssen and keeping an adamantium-clawed hand in all of the film's copious action scenes. Ratner handles his duties well enough during these moments, and deserves kudos for bringing motive and justification to the forefront of the excitement. While the fights lack the imagination of the first two films, they also stay in line with the simple echoes of the plot and maintain an agreeable punchiness throughout.
Quieter scenes don't fare quite as well, however. Ratner is smart enough to stay out of his cast's way, but more than a few emotional sequences are sabotaged by off-kilter timing or questionable camera placement. A sense of lost promise pervades X3 during these periods: not that what we see is bad, but that the potential existed to make it so much better. There could have been a great film here -- or at worst, something on par with X-Men 2. Seeing that beneath the surface makes it all the more frustrating when it stubbornly refuses to rise. While Ratner develops a slew of shocking turnabouts and revelations, none of them thunder with the power for which they are clearly intended, and exasperation at the missed opportunities slowly increases as the film goes on.
And yet despite all that, X3 still does the job. As entertainment, it's quite serviceable, and though simplistic (and at times malnourished), the series' anti-bigotry message still holds more juice than anyone could normally expect from a summer movie. Perhaps most importantly, Ratner's heart is in every one of these characters. He's not just a hack-for-hire glumly going through the motions. He clearly adores the X-Men, he knows their history, and he never makes the mistake of assuming that they're beneath him. The best moment in a late-inning showdown between the unstoppable Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) and the ephemeral Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) comes not with Jones' eye-popping meld into the floor, but with Page's mischievous "gotcha" grin. And when Kelsey Grammer's Beast utters his signature "O my stars and garters" line, my inner fanboy wanted to kiss him right on his furry blue mouth. For all his stumbles and miscues, Ratner never loses sight of those details, and holds them fiercely aloft amid the sound and the fury of the special effects. He maintains an even keel too: this film is a tight 100 minutes, but every one of the 15 principle characters has a moment in the sun and none of it feels rushed or arbitrary. (Credit editors Mark Goldblatt, Mark Helfirch, and Julia Wong, as well as Ratner, for keeping all those plates spinning.) If X3 is truly the end of the franchise, as Ratner has hinted, then at least it leaves the table ahead of the game... if not a triumph, then a modest and palpable success. You'll pardon me for breathing a quiet sigh of relief.
Review published 05.26.2006.
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