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IN SHORT: A truly kickass summer flick. Rated PG-13, 95 minutes
It is a rule of this board NOT TO COMPARE TO SOURCE MATERIAL and we're not going to break that rule for this movie. On the other hand, we've been reading X-Men for 30-something years so we're writing TWO reviews. The normal, "do you have to know stuff first?" review here. The "fanboy" review here. For a full range of pages on X-Men history, including interviews with the cast, click here.
Over a darkened screen, the authoritarian voice of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) explains the course of human evolution to you. In two brief sequences, examples are laid out: In WWII Poland, a Jewish child named Erik Lensherr frantically reaches for parents who have been sent to the gas chambers. His mutant ability pulls metal gates and barbed wire out of their mounts. In the Mississippi of a "not too distant future," a seventeen year old Marie (Anna Paquin) manifests her "X-Factor" as a result of the sexual tension of getting her first kiss from her boyfriend David (Shawn Roberts). The poor boy literally gets the life sucked out of him as he physically shrivels up on the bed. He will be in coma for three weeks. Marie will run for the hills.
Taking the pseudonym "Rogue," Marie ends up in a godforsaken place called Laughlan City, Canada, a truckstop in the middle of nowhere. In a cage in the middle of the bar, macho men with bare knuckles battle no holds barred until only one is left standing. That one is always "The King of the Cage" with a pro wrestler type name, "The Wolverine." Logan (Hugh Jackman) can take a miserable beating, but he doesn't bruise and he doesn't break and he always wins. And he has nine inch metal claws that pop out of his knuckles. Within minutes he will be attacked by other mutants, loyal to the grown up Lensherr (Ian McKellen), now called Magneto, who sees a coming war between mutant and human and has sworn "never again."
The opening acts of Bryan Singer's X-Men move fast and furious. The film's story relies on long explanations from characters of authority, like Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Professor X, to help make sense of what fans have known for years. Xavier runs a school for "the gifted," in reality a haven and training facility for mutants, including the superpowered X-Men, who bear code names like Cyclops (James Marsden) and Storm (Halle Berry). The former fires laser-like beams from his eyes. The latter has mental control over the weather.
Logan, a loner all his life with absolutely no memory of the previous fifteen years, is our guide to this underground and, with a gleam in his eye, sums up all the explanations of evil mutants and secret training facilities succinctly -- "This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard." It's an honest reaction and an honest piece of humor in a fantasy story that grounds itself in reality as surely as it can. Logan makes a deal with Xavier: he'll stay in the X-Mansion for 48 hours while they try to discover what Lensherr's interest in him is. In return, the most powerful telepath on the planet will attempt to unlock the memory blocks and free his past.
With the exposition out of the way -- and condensing 37 years of X-Men continuity into a couple of succinct sentences requires a bit of attention on your part -- the fairly black and white story that follows is a darn fine ride. Magneto's Brotherhood -- a seven foot tall lion of a man, Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), a shapeshifter with martial arts prowess named Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and the misbegotten freak called Toad (Ray Park) -- plan to force the next stage of evolution upon those who fear it most, beginning with politicians like mutant hating men like Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) of Kansas, and to hell with the rest. The X-Men will save the world, regardless of the fact that the world hates and fears them.
It's a slam dunk killer popcorn flick, folks. Being a fanboy, I made sure to track down those who knew nothing. Of the men, across the board, the action sequences got high marks, though there was some minor confusion about which character was which -- once you see Mystique in full action, you'll understand. The women liked the pace and effects, too. There are a couple of negatives, though. An attempt to show Wolverine's history through a nightmare sequence may have little meaning if you're not familiar with the comic. Demonstrations of Xavier's power also may need some explanation from friends who know what the astral plane is. If you know the book, you'll find deeper meaning in these scenes. If not, they are not so obscure that you won't be able to figure it all out.
On a simpler level, the emotional story that plays out between Logan and Rogue, he with no past and she, unable to touch or be touched, with no future, is very touching. There's a nice bit of conflict between Cyclops and Wolverine over the attentions of Jean Grey (Scott's fiancee, by the way) and the Canuck's fight scenes with the shapeshifting martial arts master Mystique are the highlight of the movie. One stunning entrance by Halle Berry's Storm, towards the end of the flick, wraps up an altogether satisfying package.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to X-Men, he would have paid...
Yes, X-Men is based on a comic book now entering its 38th year of publication. No, there is nothing cartoonish about it. The effects are remarkably restrained. The story lays out clear as a bell and by the time the end credits roll, you'll want more. In a summer thus far filled with absolute clunkers, X-Men shines like a star.
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