X-Men: The Last Stand
As far as comic book adaptations go, the X-Men film franchise has always taken a back seat to the much more enjoyable Spider-Man entries and last summer's successful revival of Batman. I've mainly viewed the films as entertaining, yet unfulfilling, due to the filmmakers' insistence on cramming too many heroes and villains into a two hour or so running time. Even under the helm of a new director (Brett Ratner of Rush Hour and Red Dragon fame), the latest installment, X-Men: The Last Stand, all but proves my belief that the films are populated by more characters than the story can handle. This is even more apparent since this one is slightly shorter and leaner than previous entries. That's not to say the film isn't fun, as there is certainly some well done and entertaining action sequences. But looking back on the whole experience, I seem to think of The Last Stand as less of a movie, and more of a "Mutants on Parade", giving the special effects and make up artists a golden chance to go nuts at the expense of character development and emotion.
When a major pharmaceutical company develops a "cure" for genetic mutations, the mutants who inhabit the world amongst the humans become divided. On the side of good we've got the X-Men, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who want to improve the relations between humans and mutants. On the opposite side, we've got the Brotherhood, a band of rebellious mutants led by the powerful terrorist Magneto (Ian McKellen) who believe that humans are inferior to their kind. The invention of the cure, and the extreme methods that the Government goes about establishing it, almost forcing it upon all mutants, tears the divide even wider, and gives Magneto an ample opportunity to expand his army and unite them against the human race and destroy those who wish to "cure" them. With the lines of battle drawn, veteran X-Men Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Storm (Halle Berry) will have to prepare some of Xavier's youngest students for what could be the final and ultimate battle that decides the fate of both mutants and humans. In a parallel subplot, one of Xavier's followers, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) has returned after supposedly falling in battle in the last film, but seems to be struggling with a dual personality and a great power that has gone out of control.
X-Men: The Last Stand pretty much hits the same notes that audiences have come to expect from the previous entries. There's lots of talk about equality, racism, prejudice, and other hot button topics that are placed under the disguise of a superhero summer blockbuster movie. There's also lots of fast-paced action, lots of stunts, and lots and lots of mutants - more so than in the earlier films I think. The film combs the rich history of the comic book and brings some fan favorites to life including the intellectual Beast (Kelsey Grammer) and the unstoppable supervillain Juggernaut, who in this movie bears a striking resemblance to an old He-Man toy I once owned named Ram-Man. That's merely the tip of the iceberg, as the film is filled with literally a cast of thousands. Of course, this being a movie that barely stretches past 100-minutes, there's hardly any time for us to get to know even a small majority of them. The movie seems to be frantically trying to please every comic book fanboy in the audience, giving each mutant - good or evil - a split second to shine by showing off their power before it moves onto the next cameo. Many of the characters are so underdeveloped that potentially powerful or dramatic scenes fall flat on their face. The brief reunion between Cyclops (James Marsden) and his love Jean Grey should be a touching and moving moment, but the scene is handled clumsily, and those who have not seen the earlier films will probably wonder what the heck just happened. The most glaring example of the screenplay's lack of character is that of a mutant called Angel, who is actually the son of the man who invented the cure, and was the inspiration for his father looking for a cure in the first place. The movie does not bother to develop the relationship between father and son even once, and the character of Angel has very little dialogue, opting instead to mainly just fly around with the wings on his back in almost every scene he's in instead of actually doing anything. It just seems like because of the movie's desire to hit so many story points in such a short amount of time, the characters suffer, and don't become half as memorable as they possibly could have been.
When the movie's not speeding along, giving us mutants galore, the film works thanks to a slightly more intelligent tone than one would expect in a summer blockbuster. As mentioned before, its talk of mutant and human relations are really thinly veiled messages on controversial topics, and the screenplay handles these scenes in a thoughtful manner that does not get preachy or overbearing. But, with this being a summer movie, most folks are not going to care about that - they're going to care about the action. Thankfully, The Last Stand delivers in this regard. Even though it takes quite a while to get to some of the big event scenes, they are well worth the wait, the highlights including Magneto using his power to manipulate the Golden Gate Bridge, and the complex climactic battle which manages to juggle its large cast of characters more successfully than almost the entire rest of the movie up to that point. The movie can thrill when it wants to, and Brett Ratner does a good job of following in the footsteps of the original director, Bryan Singer. His look and style is faithful to the tone set up in the previous two movies, so it looks like a natural succession from the last installment to this. The film also takes some daring risks in its storytelling, something that may not sit well with fans of the original comic books, but does help add some much needed tension to the proceedings. If the characterizations had been just as strong as the more action-heavy moments, this could have been the first summer blockbuster of the year that really and truly worked for me. As it is, X-Men works most of the time, but not enough for it to truly be memorable.
At least we've got some enjoyable performances to enjoy here, even if they seem a bit held back by the film's rushed pace. The returning cast slide easily back into their roles, even if quite a few of them have a lot less to do than in previous installments including Anna Paquin, James Marsden, and Rebecca Romijn. Halle Berry's Storm character gets a larger role this time around due to contract obligations, yet still comes across as being highly uncharismatic, especially when compared to Jackman's Wolverine, who unfortunately plays a slightly lesser role in the story than in the past. Standing out in the returning cast is Famke Janssen, who gets to do something radically different with her character, and is able to bring the right amount of confusion, terror, and viciousness that she needs this time around. Of the new cast, the only one able to make any sort of impression is Beast. Kelsey Grammer's dry wit, charm, and intelligence is a perfect live action realization of the character, and the make up work which requires him to be covered head to foot in a blue furry costume works extremely well and does not seem out of place or silly. The real stars, as always, are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the former best friends turned rivals with differing views on how mutants should fit into the world. Every scene they're in, especially the scenes where they're together, immediately grabs your attention. You almost wish the movie would stop giving us new mutants, and just concentrate on these two, as their performances are so commanding and full of screen presence that you can't take your eyes off of.
In the months leading up to its release, X-Men: The Last Stand has taken quite a beating on the Internet from fanboys unhappy with the direction this film was going to take the franchise. I'm happy to report that despite its obvious flaws in characterization, it's not that bad. The movie just bites off more than it can chew and winds up paying a price, though not one strong enough to make me regret seeing it. Perhaps there never can be a truly perfect X-Men movie, as the history of the comic involves too many characters and too many storylines. (The roster of the X-Men is constantly changing in the comic, so it must be hard for the filmmakers to decide which characters to focus on in each installment.) According to Fox, this is to be the final X-Men movie before they move onto individual spinoff films on certain popular characters like Wolverine. Of course, as we all know, box office can change a studio's mind. After all, 1984's Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter was far from "final". Judging by this movie's ending, I wouldn't be surprised if we see the X-Men return for a fourth installment. As long as they could tighten the script a bit more, I'd be all for it.
See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!