Sunday, April 3, 2016

X2: X-Men United (2003) (Movie Review)

      Every long running movie series seems to have that one sequel that’s unanimously praised as the best of the franchise, and for the “X-Men” film series it comes in the form of the 2003 film “X2: X-Men United”. Not only is this film widely regarded as the best of the series, but also a benchmark in the history books of comic book movie sequels. As usual, I’m not reviewing this film based on what the masses think, I’m reviewing this film solely on how I feel about it as both an X-Men fan, and as a guy who loves superhero films. Well, obviously being a long time “X-Men” fan, I have to like this film on some level, but I have to be honest, I really don’t think this film is quiet as good as it’s reputation suggests. It’s definitely a good movie, a competent entry in the series, and it’s only gotten better over the years ... but to call it the absolute best of the series is something of a stretch for me.

      Our story picks up a couple months after the events of the first film, and for the most part, things seem to be fine for our hero’s. There arch foe Magneto is in prison, classes are going well, and after a long, uneventful trip, Wolverine finally decides to return home and really become one with the X-Men. However, Jean Grey is having disturbing visions and feels something sinister on the horizon. Soon, a lone brainwashed mutant assassin named Nightcrawler brakes into the white house in an attempt to kill the president himself. His attack fails, but the damage is done, and now the nation is really out for our mutant hero’s. Then out of the shadows comes a new threat, a military scientist named Col. Stryker, who takes advantage of the situation by gaining the presidents favor and launching an attack on the X-Men mention. Professor X is taken prisoner along with the mutant tracking device Cerebro, both of which Stryker aims to use in his goal to kill off every single mutant on the planet. As Wolverine leads the rest of the team to safety, he learns that their newest enemy is in fact a long forgotten foe from his own past. So now Wolverine isn’t just fighting for the survival of his own kind, but to also battle a dark chapter from his past that’s been long forgotten. With the military following them all across the country side, our hero’s have no choice but to make a temporary alliance with none other than their greatest enemy Magneto, who secretly has his own sinister plans against the human oppressors.

      From that Synopsys, this sounds like one Hell of a bad ass sequel ... at least on paper. While the script is tight and the set up is excellent, it just doesn’t feel quiet as epic as it should. Like its predecessor, the film is very subdued, and not very fast paced. However, it just doesn’t work this time as the movie involves our hero’s losing their home, are constantly on the run form military forces, and the stakes are higher than ever before, so really this should be more exciting. I’m not saying the film is boring or hard to watch, I just wish it had more of a kick to it. In fact, I’m all for an intentionally slower pace, as long as the time is spent developing the characters further, or telling a story with deep substance. “Spider-Man 2” for example is one of my favorite superhero movies of all time, and that film also had a slow pace with very little action scenes. However, the story was far more captivating, with deeper subtext revolving around what it means to be a hero, and what it means to face real human trials. Plus, even though the action in the film was limited, the battles themselves were still thrilling spectacles. I’ll say this, “X2: X-Men United” came out at a time when big Sci-Fi action films like “The Matrix Reloaded” and “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” were all the craze, and not the smartest films either. So I do admire “X2: X-Men United” for its ambition, as it clearly wasn’t trying to be mindless fun like those films.

      The musical score composed by John Ottman is phenomenal, in fact, I’ve always regarded his score as the classic X-Men movie theme, on par with Danny Elfman’s “Batman” score. Needless to say, I didn’t care for the overall tone and somewhat down beat feel of the film. Half the time, this movie isn’t even that appealing to look at. Seriously, whenever I think of this film the first things that come to mind are all these ugly green visuals, and plain white walls with cracks going through them. There are at least some really cool effects on display, ranging from Nightcrawlers teleporting, to this awesome scene where Storm creates several tornadoes to fight off two attacking ships. On that note, the action scenes really aren’t among the best of the series. The film isn’t without some big highlights like the opening attack on the white house, but the battles are usually vary safe and by the numbers. Plus, we only see the X-Men fighting people with guns in this film, there really isn’t much mutant versus mutant action, which the first film at least delivered on. The story and growing situation are still good enough to keep the film exciting, despite its limited amount of spectacle.

      Also to be fare, the characters are fleshed out more in this film, get very involved in the situation at hand, and there’s a lot more character bonding, which is all done fairly well. However theirs a noticeable lack of fun character interplay, and that’s one of the key things I want to see from a team of superhero’s. I want them to exchange witty banter during a fight, I want to see them working together as a team, and I really want to see them combining their powers while in battle. “The Avengers” movies and the animated “Teen Titans” TV series from the early 2000’s perfected this, and it’s something that these early X-Men films noticeably struggled with. While, Wolverine once again is the star of the show, this film at least dose a better job giving the other X-Men more screen time, chances to show off their powers, and personal story arcs. Wolverine is also more of a team player, I really like how he goes on a journey of self discovery, and where his quest end’s up is very satisfying. He finally feels like part of the team, and it’s great to get some closure on his arch, while still keeping the mystery of his past in check. Halle Berry finally gets to shine in her role as Storm, Jean Grey stands out in some excellent scenes, and of course Patrick Stewart is just as outstanding as ever in his signature role of Professor X. Anna Paquin is also given more screen time as Rogue, but her character still feels underutilized. Cyclops once again has little to do in the film, which is fine by me sense I’ve never been a fan of his character.

      Once again characters like Shadow Cat and Jubilee are given little cameo’s, along with a metal skinned mutant named Colossus ... sure hope these guys do more in future films or their will be a lot of pissed off fans. One really strange cameo comes from a character seen on TV named Dr. Hank McCoy, who would later become the X-Man known as Beast, but this doesn’t fit in with the continuity at considering that he’s seen in full on best Beat form in the next film. Iceman is back and played again by Shawn Ashmore except this time he’s given a much bigger role, and can officially be ranked among the main cast of X-Men characters, and not just another extra. The stand out new character of course is Nightcrawler played by Alan Cumming, who was terrific in the role. This demonic looking teleporter was one of my favorite characters from the cartoon series and the comics, so it was great to see him in a film, and while I would have liked to see more of him in the movie, they still did the character justice. He’s powerful and scary looking, but he’s also very quiet and deeply religious, filling the role of a moral compos archetype, but not without a personality.
     Brian Cox plays our new main villain, Col Stryker, and he is excellent in the role. This guy also did a respectable job playing Hannibal Lecter in the 1986 thriller “Manhunter”, so he was a perfect choice for the role. This is a villain that has no superpowers or fighting moves, yet he stands out as one of the franchises best antagonists, and one of the teams greatest threats. It’s his intelligence and enraged passion to kill off all humans that make him so threatening, yet he also has a dark personality and wicked smile that just add a lot of evil charm to the character. At Strykers side is his own personal assassin called Lady Deathstrike, who has healing powers and claws that match Wolverines, except her claws would make Freddy Kruger jealous. Now back in the early 2000’s I had the biggest crush on actress Kelly Hu, especially after seeing her play the sorceress in “The Scorpion King”, so it was great to see her in the role of Deathstrike. Unfortunately, she is to this movie what Darth Maul was to “Star Wars 1: The Phantom menace” ... an admittedly cool looking character with one note worth fight scene, but did nothing more than stand around in the background the whole time, with nothing to say, and should have been explored more. Deathstrike was personally one of my favorite villains from Wolverines rouge gallery or enemies, and while it was at least cool to see her at all, it just felt like a real missed opportunity.

      Ian McKellen once again returns as Magneto, except this time he’s far more sinister and less sympathetic then he was in the first film. For the most part, it’s a good change, but the lengths he goes to achieve his goals in this film are almost too extreme, even for him. His shape-shifting lieutenant Mystique is still just as awesome as ever, but I have to admit, I’m not sure what the movie is trying to establish with her character. There’s a moment when she tries to get into bed with Wolverine, which really doesn’t amount to anything, and comes off as pointless filler. There’s also a sub plot revolving around an X-Man named Pyro, who can manipulate fire, and apparently has a dark side. At the end of the film he abandons the X-Men and joins Magneto, which should have been a big moment, but it’s brushed over so quickly that we hardly even notice or even care that a member of the team has turned Judas. This in my opinion was the weakest part of the movie that should have been developed more.

     The whole third act of the movie takes place in Strykers claustrophobic underground base, which really isn’t the coolest setting for a big Climax. Seriously, a good chunk on this ending is just watching our hero’s walking or running around the dull interiors of this base with hardly any real action. Occasionally we’ll get something cool like a fight between Jean Grey and a brainwashed Cyclops. Plus there’s one really cool scene where Wolverine gets into a dual with Lady Deathstrike, which is arguably one of the most memorable duals in the series, and is often regarded as one of the best action scenes from a superhero movie. Unfortunately, once Deathstrike is defeated, there’s still a lot of movie left, and it’s hard to get as thrilled when the action ends 30 minutes before the climax even resolves. The situation at least is pretty extreme as Stryker is controlling Professor X and using him to wipe out every mutant on the planet. Then things get even crazier when Magneto takes advantage of the situation, and forces the professor to wipe out all humans instead. So I’m definitely on board with seeing our hero’s win the day, and the closing scene of this finally is outstanding. After Stryker is defeated, our hero’s are stranded with a mass of water from a collapsed dam heading toward them. With no options left Jean Grey sacrifices her life in order to save her friends, and this scene in a nut shell is the best part of the whole movie. The way this was shot, acted and executed was nothing short of brilliant, and is right up there with Spocks noble sacrifice in “Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan”.

       When I first saw “X2: X-Men United”, I thought it was just okay, but it’s grown on me over the years, and now I consider it to be a bright spot, if somewhat average entry in the series. It did its job building on the foundation of its predecessor, explored the characters further, raised the stakes and ended on a powerful note. I know my opinion has been all over the place in this review, but that’s kind of how I feel when watching it. I still think the amount of praise this film gets is a bit over blown, but then again, this is the movie that confirmed the X-Men will always have a spot in the history books of successful superhero films, and for that I’m very pleased. My final verdict, it’s a very good sequel, but I think they can do better, and we’ll see what changes are in store next time when I review “X3: The Last Stand”.   

                                                 I give “X2: X-Men United” 3 ½ stars out of 5. 

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