Tuesday, May 30, 2006

"X3" moves fast, stops for no one: It's the juggernaut, b---h

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND

directed by Brett Ratner
starring Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin, Kelsey Grammer, and many, many, many others (some old, some new)

If comic book superheroes are the natural refuge of anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider or an outcast, unnoticed or noticed for the wrong reasons, then the X-Men series represents the apotheosis of all that repressed angst, yearning, and rage. For the very powers the X-Men possess—the abilities that set them apart from the crowd—make them persona non grata (plural?) in the everyday world, shunned as freaks rather than upheld as objects of wonder. In this respect, theirs is a fantasy that’s easier, if less exhilarating, to empathize with than the fantasy of being the world’s savior or destroyer.

The basic theme of alienation isn’t exclusive to “X-Men,” of course. It underlies almost all superhero stories to varying degrees (Marvel comics more than DC, I’m told). After all, the other side of awe is always fear of what’s different, and the other side of all that “with great power comes great responsibility” stuff is the desire to chuck the responsibility and either try to fit in with everyone else or wipe out everyone who stands in your way. But only with the X-Men do we get such a strong sense that their powers are social liabilities. And so, to the extent they suppress these powers or hide their identities, it’s not in the interest of the greater good, but rather to protect themselves from persecution. It’s worth noting the same idea appeared in Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” though presented with a generous dose of tongue-in-cheek wit. In the “X-Men” universe, by contrast, it’s no laughing matter.

Or at least it used not to be, back when Bryan Singer was at the helm. With a new director, Brett Ratner (principally of “Rush Hour” fame), a new sensibility now pervades the franchise, evidenced by the fact that the most memorable line of “X Men: The Last Stand” is “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!” To be fair, the differences aren’t so sharp or pervasive as to be distracting. There’s more broad comic relief, to be sure, and less angst; less brooding, and more action; fewer shadows and flashier special effects, including a showstopping sequence involving the Golden Gate Bridge. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with any of that; comic books are comic books, and not all adaptations have to follow the introspective, soul-searching path. I mean, what fun are superheroes if you can’t show them wreaking at least a little havoc or opening up a reasonable amount of whoopass?

Still, it’s in some ways unfortunate that the “X-Men” story that poses some of the most searching questions about identity and fitting in, and whether biological traits can or should be suppressed, is given the most superficial treatment of the series so far. The premise of “The Last Stand” is a rich one: a human scientist develops a vaccine that will permanently suppress the mutant gene. Some mutants line up for the “cure,” while others protest angrily that there’s nothing to be cured. The most militant flock to our old friend Magneto (Ian McKellen), who convinces them that the humans are out to exterminate them, and set out to eliminate the source of the cure.

It’s not that the film ignores the obvious resonances with today’s hot button issues, as well as deeper-seated existential questions; it marks them, but that’s pretty much all it does, largely because that’s all it has time to do. Indeed, my chief complaint with “The Last Stand” is that it feels overextended. Several scenes and plot threads seem to have been cut short or excessively edited, and a host of new characters appear on the scene just long enough to show off what they can do (e.g., Angel, a young mutant who’s made to feel his glorious wings are a defect). Even some of the returning players make extremely abbreviated appearances—most notably, Cyclops, Mystique and Rogue, who are largely sidelined (or worse) for the better part of the movie. And while Magneto still hogs the stage as the mutants’ version of Malcolm X, there’s not as much interaction between him and his peace-loving opponent, Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). This is disappointing, given that one of the great pleasures of the first two X-Men movies was the sheer delight of hearing the point-counterpoint between these two heavenly-voiced alumni of the Royal Shakespeare Company. As it is, Xavier isn’t given a whole lot to say, and even McKellen can’t quite pull off some of the inflated oratory he’s given to deliver—though he comes closer than anyone else could have.

Somewhat more prominently featured this time round is a newly short-haired Storm (Halle Berry) and the previously little-seen Kitty Pryde (here played by Ellen Page, last seen doing very bad things in “Hard Candy”), a student at Xavier’s who strikes sparks with Iceman under Rogue’s jealous eyes. Also given more than a walk-on role is furry blue newcomer Beast, aka Dr. Hank McCoy (a surprisingly good Kelsey Grammer), who serves as the mutants’ liaison to the White House. And, of course, at the story’s center, though curiously divorced from its main plot, is the ongoing soap opera of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, as deliciously smouldering as ever) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who returns from the dead as the Dark Phoenix, a creature of unbounded appetites and uncontrollable impulses that are apparently capable of destroying the world several times over. Turns out, at least in this version of the story, that she had these powers in her all along, but they were kept carefully under wraps by Xavier’s mind control. Well, no more. Nice Jean is gone, and Magneto and Xavier strive in vain to play ego and superego, respectively, to harness her pure id. Magneto's motives are clear enough; however, one of the more interesting aspects of “X3” is that it makes Xavier less obviously benign, and in his well-intended attempt to restrain Jean's powers, rather subtly echoes the humans' attempt to suppress the mutant gene.

Logan, of course, is still irresistibly drawn to Jean in her new and deadly incarnation, and, perhaps, may be the only one who can save her from herself. Melodramatic? Certainly. Yet oddly enough, it’s the one part of the movie that's done just right. Janssen’s face has a remarkable sculpted quality, softened by flickers of emotion at key moments, that’s used to great effect here, while Jackman quite effectively conveys the anguish of a man helplessly in love with the wrong woman. Their climactic confrontation, against the backdrop of an apocalyptic battle, has an operatic grandeur that the rest of the movie is too busy to sustain. “The Last Stand” gets where it’s going, with a brisk efficiency that succeeds on its own terms. But its soul—to the extent it has one-—is borrowed from its predecessors, and ultimately there’s not quite enough of it to go around.

GRADE: B

6 Comments:

Blogger phoenix said...

? Am i the only one out there who thought that the film could have had a better storyline throughout the film which could have made it better than it was.
i agree with you about fameke jannsen (phoenix) i thought that was rather well done.

? I heared that something was supposed to happen at the end of the credits of the film which i rather missed. if you know what it was could you tell me cause i'd really like to know.
I'm wondering if it's jean rising from the ashes again or in this case her grave.

8:30 AM  
Blogger LVJeff said...

Trivia time: The "I'm the Juggernaut, b---h" line is a rather unfortunate inside joke. It's a reference to a video (which can be found on YouTube) where basically a couple of guys sit in front of a tv playing an episode of the X-Men cartoon, turn the volume down, and talk over it, "dubbing" the voices. It prominently features Juggernaut, and all the guys do is make him say over and over, ad nauseum, "Don't you know who I am? I'm the Juggernaut, b---h!", sprinkled with various doses of, "Aw, man, what the f---?!?" And this goes on for, like, nine minutes or something. The movie thus sadly gives legitimacy to this, um... I don't even know what to call it.

7:16 PM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

I always thought the most famous line in this movie was Magneto's "In chess, the pawns go first."

Why no one followed that up with "And the queens we use will not excite you," I'll never know...

6:35 PM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

I think everyone thinks this movie could have had a better storyline, phoenix.

And the chance for some serious social commentary (whether it's comparisons between the vaccine and the controversy over cochlear implants or else the simple question of what happens when you spend your life fighting against humans and then find yourself to be one of them) was sorely missed.

6:39 PM  
Blogger lylee said...

Thanks for the trivia, Jeff. I, too, have no words for it. But it's very much in line with Ratner's general approach to moviemaking - which I don't hate as much as some, but I miss Singer.

9:51 PM  
Blogger jefelee said...

Good review, far my eloquent than my mine. Ratner's bad rep actually helped me enjoy this film more; I was able to lower my expectations the moment he was brought aboard...

11:09 PM  

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