X-Men: The Last Stand

It’s been a disappointing franchise.  The first film was a close call for me.  With too many characters vying for screen time, not all of them beautifully portrayed or interesting (beyond their special gifts), overall, it didn’t fly.  The second never did recover after the entertaining first ten minutes.  A weak villain, an unexciting plot and an overlong running time thoroughly sank it.  As a result, I had low expectations for number three.
 
But much to my surprise, despite its flaws, X-Men: The Last Stand is the best of the series, good but not great and almost a miss.  As Cosmo Kramer would say, "It’s a Festivus miracle!"
 
In X-Men (2000), we were introduced to Professor Charles Xavier (a perfectly cast Patrick Stewart), a wise old mutant in a wheelchair (with those cool "X" logos) who runs a special private school for young kids with special powers.  We learned about the falling out he had with Magneto (the excellent Sir Ian McKellan), a fellow mutant with a strong disdain for the persistent prejudice humans feel for his kind.  Professor X is the mutant Martin Luther King Jr. to Magneto’s Malcolm X.  The former wants humans and mutants to co-exist peacefully while the latter is more than willing to go to war against his enemies, the deeply xenophobic United States Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) being the number one target, in order to preserve freedom for himself and his followers.  Think "mutant power" instead of "black power".
 
The good professor and his allies – Storm (Halle Berry, who I felt was miscast) and Wolverine (the charismatic Hugh Jackman’s breakthrough role), among them – helped foil Magneto which led to his incarceration in a special non-metal prison.  (He’s able to manipulate and control large objects made of that substance with his mind not unlike Yoda, hence the need for the alternate material.) 
 
In the second movie, the X-Men required his assistance for a special rescue mission.  (Another mutant-hating baddie (Brian Cox in one of his least interesting performances) had kidnapped Professor X.)  And now, we have this movie which has some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in quite some time.  In fact, they’re the reason I enjoyed the movie.
 
The movie opens with a couple of flashbacks.  In the first one, Professor X, not yet in that snazzy wheelchair, and Magneto are not yet enemies.  They meet a young Jean Grey at her parents’ home.  She might be the most powerful mutant they’ve ever discovered, which is precisely why they want her to enrol in their special private school. 
 
At the end of the second film, she was killed off and when the movie returns to the present she’s waiting to be resurrected by her grieving boyfriend, Cyclops (James Marsden).  Still haunted by her death, she calls out to him – "Scott.  Scott." – until he arrives at the scene of her demise.  A well-timed laser blast from his eyes into the ocean where she drowned somehow results in her re-birth.  After briefly rekindling their romance (they always had zilcho chemistry, unfortunately), a tragedy occurs.
 
That’s one of the delights of this movie.  There’s genuine suspense regarding the fates of our heroes.  Some make it, some die spectacularly.
 
Meanwhile, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) has been apprehended by the authorities after learning some important news.  A "cure" for mutantism has been discovered and plans are underway to offer it to anyone who can’t handle the terminal alienation from humans any further.  (A mutant politician, well played by an unrecognizable Kelsey Grammer, feels conflicted about it, as does the community at large.)  Rogue (Anna Paquin), the cute girl with the powerful kiss of death, is one of the few eager to lose her powers after seeing the announcement on live Television.  With her frustrated boyfriend, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), starting to spend time with another cute mutant named Kitty (Canadian Ellen Page), time’s a-wastin’.  Others publicly protest outside the clinic where the cure is being offered.
 
The romantic elements of these films were always the least interesting with the exception of the Wolverine-Jean Grey pairing.  (He was Cyclops’ rival for her affection.)  Once she’s back resting at the mutant school, Professor X informs us that she has a split personality.  Thanks to his schooling and medical know-how, the good side is able to control her magnificent superpower and use it for noble purposes.  The bad side?  It makes her oversexed and full of rage.  After briefly seducing Wolverine, she flees and eventually aligns herself with Magneto, who’s building an army of mutants to do battle with the humans.  But first, he needs to rescue Mystique (still up to her shape-shifting tricks) and get a full report on what she’s learned about the cure.
 
X-Men: The Last Stand is far from a perfect movie.  It’s a bit uneven in the first act, after three strong opening scenes, where it’s not so action-heavy.  It lags a bit in places.  The dialogue isn’t Shakespeare.  Don’t expect any deep thoughts in any of the conversations here, the provocative premise notwithstanding.  (Very little time is spent debating the ethics of the cure.)  It’s mostly straightforward and serviceable with the occasional and completely unnecessary cliche.  ("Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned." "The best defence is a good offence.")
 
As always, there are too many characters competing for our attention and it’s easy to lose track of who’s who from time to time.  As a result, it’s not always possible to form immediate emotional attachments to them.  (They need more than gimmicks to keep us involved.)  But as the film progresses and nicely picks up momentum, it’s surprising how much we care about the outcome.  The intensity of the action, surprisingly, makes those attachments somewhat unnecessary. 
 
The romantic subplots, continued from the earlier chapters, for the most part, lack spice and conviction, as they always did but they’re thankfully given the bare minimum of scenes here.  The plot, while interesting, is very much a high concept (it can be summed up in a sentence, in other words).  Everything is a set-up for the real joy of the film:  those astounding action sequences.
 
From Jean Grey’s battle with Professor X to the Golden Gate Bridge sequence to Mystique’s rescue to the Juggernaut/Kitty chase to the exciting third act and everything in between, these are some of the best directed action scenes I’ve ever seen.  Bloodless and yet remarkably brutal.  Who would’ve thought that Brett Ratner (a last-minute sub for X-Men’s regular director, Bryan Singer, who was preoccupied with Superman Returns), the guy responsible for two bad Rush Hour pics (haven’t seen the third one yet), a dreadful Hannibal Lecter remake (Red Dragon), and a crappy heist picture (After The Sunset) would be capable of making the best movie in the series, the only one I enjoyed?
 
The stellar special effects, the beautiful cinematography, the crisp editing and those jolting foley effects, along with the actual action, are blended seamlessly to the point where you constantly blurt out "Cool!".  Why?  Because you can’t contain your excitement.  I also liked the movie’s sense of humour.  Most of the quips are funny.
 
Still, the movie could’ve been more than just an efficient action film.  In fact, in the beginning, it looked like it wasn’t going to work for me. (In the first half, before the movie found its rhythm, I was leaning towards a mixed review.) With fewer characters to focus on, more compelling dialogue and more consistently engrossing dramatic sequences to complement the violence, X-Men: The Last Stand could’ve been something special.  That being said, Brett Ratner was the right choice to direct this movie.  Action scenes were always his strong suit (the first Rush Hour provides the evidence) and thanks to his confident work on this third X-Men movie, he’s got a difficult job ahead trying to top what he’s accomplished.
 
This might not be the last movie in the series, if the final scenes are any indication.  But considering how long it took to get a decent movie out of these old comic book characters, maybe it’s best to quit while you’re ahead.
 
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, September 14, 2007
2:00 p.m.
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Published in: on September 14, 2007 at 2:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

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