This week’s new releases are powerhouse films starring big stars. I Am Legend stars Will Smith as Robert Neville, the last man on Earth. Atonement stars Keira Knightley and James McAvoy as lovers torn apart when he’s wrongfully accused of a crime. Enchanted stars the adorable Amy Adams in her own Cinderella-story, where Prince Charming could be James Marsden or Patrick Dempsey (I’m sold either way).
The X-Men have always had two identity crises: the first, a recurring theme in all three films is their outsider status as mutants; the second identity crisis belongs to the film series itself. The first X-Men was a good, solid start: modest budget, good director, good cast and a taut script that only lost its energy in the climactic finish. X2 featured more characters involved in a far more intricate plot that necessitated more special effects—yet it was too complicated for its own good, dragging on a bit too long, all the while jumping around at A.D.D. pace trying to keep all of its characters in frame. Now we have X-Men: The Last Stand under the hands of a new director (Rush Hour’s Brett Ratner) and while some of the series’ identity problems have worked themselves out, much like a gawky teenager, new ones have emerged and taken their place.
X-Men: The Last Stand is to the first X-Men what Superman II was to Superman: It’s faster, sharper and more exciting—but also colder, tackier and more violent. In other words, the X-Men have lost some of their innocence, and those growing pains are sometimes poignant, but sometimes disappointing. Ratner is what I would call a talented hack. He lacks anything distinguishing in his style, yet technically he his able to keep the ship on its course. Ditto for screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn who have fashioned the film after the ’80s action genre—the film is big and loud, with more sexuality, violence and swearing than the first two combined. I’m not a puritan by any means, but these films have a huge youth audience and I don’t picture parents being overly thrilled with testicle jokes and liberal uses of the word “bitch.”
Superhero movies all have a common enemy that they must fight against using all of their unique powers: camp. Indeed, since these stories are in no way based in reality, the risk of becoming silly is high (the horrific mistake of embracing camp resulted in the hard fall of the Joel Schumacher-helmed Batman movies). Sadly, some of the actors head into that territory because the script keeps trying to throw action-movie quips into the mix. A few of them work—most do not. Jackman, so intense as Wolverine in the first one, has way too many sardonic one-liners. I think the writers are going for Indiana Jones, but he comes off more like Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China (that’s not a compliment). Kelsey Grammer, playing a mutant politician, is essentially a blue, furry Frasier Crane. He looks like something out of the original Planet of the Apes movies and when he tries to be a badass during the climactic fight, the results are William Shatner-ishly cheesy. Sir Ian McKellan, as bad guy Magneto is also getting a little too Snidely Whiplash. Anna Paquin’s Rogue (still with her coming-and-going Southern accent) is brushed aside for most of the movie while more time is given to a new teen X-starlet named Kitty (Hard Candy’s Ellen Page). The scene where the diminutive Page physically overcomes three hundred pound body builder Vinnie Jones (as bad guy Juggernaut) is beyond ridiculous.
Only the plus side, Patrick Stewart is still commanding as Charles Xavier, the father figure trying keep all the mutants in line. The film also boasts a rejuvenated Famke Janssen as Jean Grey. I found Janssen to be a liability in the first two films—far too bland for all the screen time devoted to the love triangle between her, Wolverine and Cyclops (James Marsden). Janssen comes back from the dead with a serious dark side and playing the bad girl brings out a lot more personality in the actress, who hasn’t been this engaging since her breakout role as murderous Russian spy Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye. The film also wisely puts Marsden in the background. His Dawson’s Creek theatrics made a bad love story even worse and the new plot development fortunately keeps him at bay. Halle Berry (who thankfully is in this instead of Catwoman: The Last Stand) finally gets more to do and she comes off better in her beefed up role.
The missteps are regrettable because this could have easily been the best X-Men movie of them all. It has the best storyline of three, with much of the conflict revolving around a “mutant vaccine,” that instantly removes all of a mutant’s powers. This storyline exemplifies one of the most unique qualities about the film: the way it draws parallels to current issues. The plights of the mutants in all three movies resonate with a number of contemporary issues including abortion, AIDS, homosexuality, racism, the pangs of adolescence, the Iraq war and other political issues. This is what gives the film its brain and its heart, which is more important than any of the wondrous powers on display.