Thursday, June 29, 2006

Film Review - X-Men: The Last Stand

It is downright eerie to see how interconnected the seemingly autonomous projects, Superman Returns and X-Men: The Last Stand, are with each other. For example, Brett Ratner, director of the third and possibly final installment in the X-Men series, was originally attached to resurrect the once venerable DC Comic superhero film franchise, which, in light of both the exasperating Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, unquestionably the worst installment in the series, was in serious need of revival, with Superman Returns now helmed by Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-Men movies. Creative differences with Warner Brother executives however forced Ratner from the project. Ratner was then replaced with McG, director of the fortuitously unfunny Charlie’s Angels film series, who reportedly was hired as a ploy to lure Michael Bay to the project. It ultimately failed when Bay asked for too much in back-end deals. In accepting the position of director for Superman Returns, Singer made live-long enemies with studio executives at 20th Century Fox. Not only did he dump the third X-Men movie with little if any advance notice to the studio, he brought along with him cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, composer/editor John Ottman, production designer Guy Dyas, and writers Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty, all of whom collaborated with Singer on the X2: X-Men United, draining the 20th Century Fox of some creative talent for the next installment at an inopportune time, the studio having just stacked out a claim for a Memorial Day release in 2006.

The story for X-Men: The Last Stand is easily the least memorable in the comic book trilogy. In addition it is far less consistent in terms of flow then the previous two entries. But then again given how Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris, two of the three screenwriters for X2: X-Men United, bailed on this project in order to work on director Bryan Singer’s Superman project over at Warner Brothers it does not come as a complete surprise. The two screenwriters who replaced them lacked sufficient credentials to fill the void Harris and Dougherty left behind. Simon Kinberg wrote the screenplay for the embarrassing follow-up to the Vin Diesel blockbuster, xXx2: State of the Union, and Mr. & Mrs. Smith while Zak Penn’s sole writing credit was for Elektra. Fans of both the comic book as well as the cartoon series the X-Men films were based on will be sorely disappointed with how the Phoenix saga is portrayed onscreen particularly after the anticipation that was built up following the titillating conclusion to the first sequel in which an image of a fiery Phoenix can be barely made out from below the waters. The two variant plot lines – the mutant cure (based on Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men storyline) and the Phoenix saga – do not gel well together, belittling rather then complimenting each other. Also there are specific plot elements in the script that simply do not work at all. For example, the subplot between Angel, the boy with the bird-like wings, and his father, Warren Worthington, the man behind the mutant ‘cure’, is a complete waste. Nothing is done in term of advancing the plot. In fact the character of Angel itself makes only three appearances throughout the movie, none of which are of any significance with the only exception being at the very end. And what is the point of hinting at a supposed love triangle between Kitty Pryde, Iceman, and Rogue when nothing comes about of it? Outside of being a close friend nothing occurs between Kitty and Iceman that would suggest an impending romantic relationship. Rogue is barely seen as it is in the film so her transformation from having powers to being ‘cured’ of her mutant powers which have been nothing but a curse to her has no emotional impact on the audience.

Hugh Jackman returns in top action form as was to be expected in the role of Wolverine. However unlike the previous installments no advancement is made in terms of Wolverine’s character development. The audience gains no further insight into his past or the depth of his mind. This is a disappointment to say the least but had more time been devoted toward the script then something may have developed in some form or another. This will likely be expanded upon however in the subsequent spin-off soon to follow. Regretfully Academy Award-winner (it was handed to her because the NAACP complained) Halle Berry returns as Storm. Her role was expanded significantly (or else she would not have reprised the role in the third installment in the film series) but her vapid performance as the newly appointed leader of the X-Men leaves something greatly to be desired. Her character’s mutant powers are used to their full potential but besides that it was a critical mistake for Brett Ratner to have expanded her role in the film. Berry could have easily been replaced and no one would have noticed or complained. And while no comic book character truly dies (something both Superman and Elektra for example can attest to) certain send-offs in this film, Cyclops’s off-screen expulsion in particular, were a tad dispiriting.

Sir Ian McKellen who earlier this summer appeared alongside Tom Hanks in the Ron Howard drama The Da Vinci Code returns to the role of Magneto/Eric Lehnsherr in top form which frankly is hardly a surprise given his experienced acting career. It is the final climatic scene in the film in which Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants and the X-Men face off on Alcatraz Island that fully demonstrates the cruel irony of Magneto’s development in the X-Men film series. Standing high above the masses of ‘pawns’ he sends in first against the humans guarding Alcatraz Island, relentlessly cut-down with guns loaded with the ‘cure’, Magneto has become the very thing he hated most, as tyrannical a dictator as Adolf Hitler ever was. And while the film’s conclusion in which a now cured Magneto is seen in the park playing a game of chess alone is a tad precipitous and headlong, it fits perfectly with the X-Men mythology. In the comic book series Magneto and his immediate family were persecuted for their Jewish heritage by the Nazis, shot and then buried in a mass grave. He alone survived because he unconsciously used his magnetic powers to prevent the bullet from killing him. While it is unlikely we will know the definitive answer to whether Magneto was ‘cured’ of his mutant powers or not, it is certainly not out the question that he indeed used his magnetic powers, consciously or not, to prevent the needle from delivering the cure into his body.

Kelsey Grammer perfectly translates the mutant character Beast from the comic book and cartoon series to the silver screen, from his appearance to his mannerisms and even down to his famous tagline, “My stars and garters”. Fans will be pleased to say the least about it.

There was so much potential, at least from a fanboy aspect, for Kitty Pryde (one of the few prominent Jewish superheroes not to mention her extraordinary high IQ) that even her translation from a mere background character to a supporting role is a bit of a disappointment. Ellen Page’s performance however is delightful regardless the irrelevant love-triangle the writers involve her in.

As for Juggernaut, played by British football player-turned actor Vinnie Jones, nothing is mention in the way of his character being related to Professor Charles Xavier. In the comic book series he was the stepbrother of Professor X and his helmet which is dramatically different from the one he wears in the film was created to block out telekenetic powers such as his stepbrother’s so noone could read his mind or manipulate him. The only highlight may be the cheap one-liner he throws at Kitty Pyrde near the end of the film, “Don't you know who I am? I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!” This of course is a passing reference to the internet short film ‘The Juggernaut Bitch’ but unless you aware of what they are referring to, it just comes off as being awkward and unnecessary.

And while it may be a mystery for some, the absence of Nightcrawler from the picture should not come as a surprise to audience members who have played the X-Men: The Last Stand companion video game.

Overall, the third and quite conceivably the final chapter in the epic X-Men saga (spin-off projects however are being developed by 20th Century Fox for individual mutants including Wolverine, Magneto, and even Mystique) was not the best we could have hope for but neither was it as cataclysmic a disaster as some hardcore fans predicted it would be. Firmly lacking the quintessential elements of continuity and profundity in the areas of character development and story enhancement, X3 never really rises above the measure of a pure adrenaline-fueled action popcorn flick which needless to say is precisely what the domestic box office needs more of. It won’t please everyone but neither is it meant to. Sure, it goes a little over the top at times and it is noticeable that more forethought was placed into carefully orchestrating particular action sequences (for example, the Golden Gate Bridge sequence) then crucial elements of the script which were more worthy of attention. That said however the action sequences are where the film and more importantly director Brett Ratner truly shine. The battle scene near the beginning of the film, the one in which fans get to briefly see the Danger Room as well as a quick shot of a Sentinel, and the one at the end seem to mirror each other perfectly, creating a sort of symmetry which works to great effect. There’s the brilliantly choreographed fight sequence between Wolverine and other mutants through a forest, moments with the Phoenix, and so much more that to further elaborate would be to spoil it. Beyond that X3’s dilemmas are staggering. This is not however director Brett Ratner’s fault mind you. Let’s face it, X2: X-Men United with the exception of the rather haphazard subtitle is one of the best comic book feature film adaptations in recent memory, if not of all time, albeit far behind the genius of Spider-Man 2. X2 was a tremendously difficult act to follow whether it was Brett Ratner or even if Bryan Singer himself had returned to the helm. Like Return of the Jedi after the Empire Strikes Back, the second film had received such critical and public acclaim that expectations were set ridiculously high for the follow up. In other words someone was bound to be disappointed no matter who directed it. In addition kudos should be given to director Brett Ratner for putting together a practically acceptable if not often inconsistent superhero film in the short amount of time, far less then any other director in the same situation at a different production studio. Singer’s absence is noticeable, no doubt about it. The first two films were far more sincere in nature while Ratner’s is more off-balanced. But rather then attempt to duplicate Singer’s directorial style Ratner instead chose to put his own spin on the X-Men franchise which whether you agree with it or not is true to his filmmaking abilities. While X-Men: The Last Stand marks a significant step backward for the superhero film franchise, it is at least a half-way decent action flick, something of which American movie audiences have been deprived of for some time now. Had director Brett Ratner been given more time in which to put together the production, he could have easily produced a stirring final chapter in the X-Men saga but sadly it does not happen this time around.

My Rating: **** out of 5 (Grade: B+)