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X2: The X-Men drama continues

May 01, 2003 15:43 IST

Unveiled in over 5,000 theatres worldwide before the onslaught of The Matrix Reloaded (Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Monica Belluci) begins, X2: XHugh Jackman in X2: -Men United is capable of fighting through any heavy competition.

While it lacks the sentimental pull and sweetness of a movie like Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire, Willem Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst), it still offers spectacular thrills, solid performances, especially by Hugh Jackman and the fresh X-Men character Alan Cummings, and plenty of emotions for most of its 134 minutes.

The movie fumbles when it tries to espouse its theme of peace and co-existence between dissimilar creatures -- mutants and humans. Also, the weak dialogue makes things worse.

Yet, since the sequel is released nearly three years after X-Men became a strong international hit, it has fresh appeal.

It does not work well as a stand-alone movie, making it a bit challenging for those who haven't seen the first film to grasp the motivation for the behaviour of many of its characters. For those who are learning about the Marvel Comics characters for the first time, the mutants are a band of evolved humans endowed with extraordinary powers used to fight their evil counterparts. Being mutants also makes the X-Men target to misunderstandings, suspicion and derision by some of their human cousins.

The first film, though shorter than the current one by about 20 minutes, took time to set up its characters. For instance, we learned, in a terrifying way, about the arch villain Magneto's childhood in a Nazi death camp -- and how he came to decide he would not be a victim of injustice again.

The new movie, while continuing to explore the themes of the first -- the fear of the 'different' among them -- is also consistently more spectacular and fast-paced than its predecessor.  Its characters -- the friendly and unfriendly mutants and the good and evil humans -- do not look over-exposed either. Director Bryan Singer, who took up huge, special effects-filled movies four years ago, after working on smaller films like The Usual Suspects (Kevin Spacey, Gabriel Byrne, Benicio Del Toro, Stephen Baldwin) and Apt Pupil (Ian Mckellen, Brad Renfro), has once again proved he can deftly handle action and emotions.

After the recent disappointing comic book movies -- Daredevil (which nevertheless proved to be a moderate hit, grossing $180 million) and Bulletproof Monk (headed for a disappointing $30 million in North America) -- X2 comes as a refreshing change.

Starting with grand, pulse-quickening action shots involving the freakish and overtly religious Nightcrawler (Cumming, who is arresting throughout), who is ordered to assassinate the American president, the film takes the viewer on a journey in which the mutants have to fight for their survival, overcoming the differences between themselves. While the smart and daring assassination attempt is foiled, the ominous message the rebellious mutants leave behind scares the president and his advisers. It says: Free Mutants Now.

The brilliant Brian Cox as General William Stryker is the main villain in X2. Stryker leads a renegade military unit that assaults the school for young mutants run by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). He has been asked by the president to sort out the mutant 'problem'. In going against his mandate and trying to eliminate the mutants, Stryker has his own hidden agenda.

The new danger to the mutant species forces Magneto (Ian McKellen) to bury his dislike for Professor Xavier. The wheelchair-confined professor teaches young mutants to use their abilities for the good of human and mutant kind. His X-Men are committed to protecting others -- even those who consider them deviants and seek to destroy them.  Even the malevolent Magneto, who hates humans, forges an alliance with the professor against Stryker.

Unlike in the first film, Magneto's character doesn't carry much of a conflict here. Nor is the character compellingly complex. Compared to Stryker, he almost appears benign.

But the real hero, as in the first movie, is Wolverine (the charismatic Jackman), who maintains his healing abilities and metal claws here. This time, we encounter a brooding and anguished Wolverine who must unearth the puzzles and secrets that form his mysterious past.

Equally interesting is Nightcrawler, especially when we learn his real self. He is one of the few characters that are treated well by the script. Though Cumming has a solid reputation on the stage (Cabaret) and in films, this is the film that will gain him huge popularity. 

Among the more interesting characters in the movie is Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), Magneto's shape-manoeuvring associate who springs him from the maximum-security prison he was held at the end of the first film. There is Deathstrike (Kelly Hu), who has Wolverine-like healing powers. Not to mention an evil heart, since she is Stryker's associate.A still from X2: -Men United

As the adventure continues, we meet familiar characters from the previous film: Halle Berry as Storm conjures a chaotic climax in a second. Berry lights the screen as she directs tornadoes on a pair of fighter jets. She looks more stunning here than she did in the prequel. I wish she had more screen time.

There are speculations if she will feature in the next X-Men film. The Oscar-winning actress is keener to be seen as a dramatic actress than in acting in adventure flicks. Female characters do not seem to be vital to the progress of the X-Men films anyway.

Arthur J Pais