The Good: Well-directed, Engaging action, Acting, Interesting characters, Special effects
The Bad: Derivative of other science fiction works, Obvious shots
The Basics: In a surprisingly good sequel, the X-Men team up with the villainous Magneto to stop a greater villain, a human with a real grudge against mutants.
One of my minor pet peeves in life is when the name given to films does not match what appears on the screen. I first realized this irked me when I watched many many previews for The X-Files: Fight The Future and the whole "Fight The Future" never actually appeared in the title. Scant weeks before its release, X-2 suddenly became X-2: X-Men United, apparently to keep people confusing the X-Men series with XXX (Triple X). The "X-Men United" never actually appears in the film, though, but I forgive the studio; the film is good enough even without the naming vex. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that X-2: X-Men United is better than the first X-Men film in many ways.
Picking up where X-Men (reviewed here!) left off, Magneto is still trapped in his plastic prison and Wolverine has gone in search of answers at Alkali Lake and the rest of the X-Men are doing their things. Well, except Jean Grey. There's something not right about her. Their little routines are suddenly shaken up by a Mutant who attacks and nearly kills the President of the United States. While Storm and Jean Grey go in search of the would-be assassin (a likable teleporting mutant named Kurt Wagner), Professor X and Cyclops got to interrogate Magneto, reasoning that he had something to do with it. While all of them are away, Wolverine, Rogue, Iceman and Pyro find themselves under siege by commandos who are determined to capture the mutants at the professor's school. The raid is the brainchild of William Stryker, an embittered man whose mutant son is the cause of his wife's death. Stryker has used Magneto to come up with a plan to kill all of the mutants on Earth, using Professor X and Cerebro. It's up to the X-Men, in tandem with their adversaries Magneto and Mystique, to save mutantkind.
However, the film is entertaining and it does an excellent job at continuing the themes and positive messages from the first X-Men film. Bryan Singer does an excellent job directing, quickly returning the viewer to a world in the no so distant future that seems instantly familiar to the audience, yet different enough to remain engaging. His style, especially in the big bang of an opening, is very accessible and makes the story easy to follow.
In fact, the only severe problem with the film is that it comes across as highly derivative, especially to fans of the Star Trek franchise. X-2: X-Men United bears more than a passing resemblance to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (reviewed here!), from it's obsessed, deeply hurt villain to the disastrous scenario which opens the movie to the sacrifice at the climax of the film. Outside that writing fault, the only problem of note is the director's insistence on making things terribly obvious to the viewer. I, as an intelligent person in the moviegoing public, found myself insulted by the reminder that Senator Kelly is actually Mystique. This is done by a disgustingly obvious long hold shot on Kelly after meeting with Stryker wherein Kelly's eyes morph into Mystique's. The viewer didn't need such an obvious reminder (considering X-Men ended with a similar visual note).
The nice thing about X-2: X-Men United is that it manages to be an intelligent, character driven story more than simply a senseless comic book action flick. Stryker is easily one of the best villains ever to crop up in science fiction. His actions are reprehensible, his methods are horrific and his hatred seeps into every moment he is on the screen. Stryker makes it believable that those who are historically enemies (Magneto and the X-Men) would come together. Pooling their resources seems the only way to counter this very nasty character.
But the character is not limited to the villainous Stryker. Kurt Wagner, also known as Nightcrawler, leaps into the series as a compelling, intriguing mutant with a great deal of backstory and a compelling philosophy of kindness to all. While this newcomer takes much of the time on-screen, there is still ample time to explore Rogue and Bobby's burgeoning romance and Pyro's descent into the dark side of mutantkind.
And of the regular X-Men? Singer seems to make the right choice by jettisoning the bland, white bread Cyclops for much of the film, favoring instead the dim-witted, but interesting Wolverine. As Wolverine learns more and more of his past, he becomes more interesting, if not more intelligent (the movie would not have happened had Wolverine been just a little more clever at the beginning and actually looked around Alkali Lake). And Jean Grey's strange transformation makes her character even easier to watch.
What separates X-2: X-Men United from a lot of the science fiction, and especially comic book adaptations that abound, is that the franchise has invested in some high caliber actors and actresses. Brian Cox portrays Stryker and does such a magnificent job that he is almost unrecognizable to fans of some of his other works, such as 25th Hour. Cox has real screen presence and he manages to envelop himself in the role completely.
Similarly, the always-wonderful Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart bring dignity to their roles that no one else could. Anna Paquin is underused in X-2: X-Men United, which is unfortunate considering what a plum role Rogue had in the first. Still, Paquin does an excellent job in the scenes she is present for.
Much of the movie hinges on the performances of Alan Cumming and Hugh Jackman. Hugh Jackman was cast perfectly as Wolverine for X-Men and here he continues to illustrate that he has more than just the physical type for the character, he has a growl and a berzerker look to him and he is able to play the character as strong, swift, egocentric and just a little dim. In contrast, Cumming creates a character that is deeply spiritual, philosophical and flat out cute. He adds a gentle voice and evokes emotions using his eyes in a way that is not lost beneath all of his make-up.
X-2: X-Men United is fairly dependent upon seeing X-Men, but it is well worth the time. X-2: X-Men United is an accomplished sequel that reminds us how good a comic book can be. It does not need to be stupidly violent or excessively graphic and X-2: X-Men United illustrates that by balancing action with social messages. And outside the obvious Mystique shot, it manages to do it without being terribly heavy-handed.
For other Marvel films, please check out my reviews of:
Iron Man 2
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© 2011, 2008, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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