When Big Gets Bigger

X2, the breathlessly titled sequel to the surprise 2000 hit X-Men, is certain to make a lot of people very happy. It’s bound to rack up some serious box-office booty in the two weeks prior to the arrival of The Matrix Reloaded. And it’s even surer to kick off lots of self-congratulatory backslapping and cigar chomping among the 20th Century Fox brass who sanctioned its making, who must be thrilled to have a sure-fire franchise arrive at a moment when even Bruce Willis and John Travolta are no longer guarantors of a movie’s success. (X2 is scheduled to open simultaneously in more global markets than any film in movie history.) It’s the kind of movie destined to turn small careers big and big careers even bigger. So, maybe it’s unfair — or, at least, futile — to expend much energy expressing reservations about X2. Maybe it’s some kind of authorial self-flagellation to criticize a movie that seems, in every way, to be exactly what its makers intended. Maybe, given how little impact film critics have on the performance of comic-book-derived action spectacles in the first place, this space would be put to better use reviewing something more meaningful — like the wonderful afternoon I spent at the Art Institute of Chicago immediately following the X2 screening, or my personal predictions concerning the four remaining American Idol contestants.

A thousand maybes. And yet, I can’t help heaving a huge sigh of despair over X2 — despair that it isn’t smarter or faster or funnier than it is; despair that it isn’t more concerned with genuinely moving audiences than with moving the commas and decimal points on the balance sheets of its producers. Most of all, I despair (even if it’s become something of a cliché to do so) at my remembrance of a time when summer movies — likely, the same ones that Bryan Singer grew up enamored of — were more than just a way of beating the heat and selling tie-in merchandise. Much like its predecessor, X2 is a cold, unfeeling, soulless film, a movie with dollar signs in its eyes and adamantium coursing through its veins. And unlike Rogue (Anna Paquin), it doesn’t take your breath away; it doesn’t daze or elate or stupefy you, or give you any of the other senses of thrill that good summer movies are supposed to give you. What’s more, when all is said and done, it doesn’t even feel like X2 has tried that hard.

That’s not to say that X2 isn’t an improvement over X-Men, even a considerable one at that. The action is more muscular and confident this time around; the X-Jet is bigger and more turbocharged; Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) mutton chops have been tapered slightly; and Storm (Halle Berry, as the only X-person likely to earn the American Meteorological Society’s seal of approval) has traded in her white fright wig for a shorter, more stylish model (the original having been donated to Billy Bob Thornton for his performance in Levity). In other words, the X-Men are livin’ large at the start of this new chapter, clearly phat from the profits generated by their first movie adventure — even if James Marsden (as Cyclops) still hasn’t found time to consult LeVar Burton’s optometrist about streamlining his headgear.

The good fortune that comes with having saved the world from Magneto’s (Ian McKellen) near-mutant-izing of it has also bought our heroes a couple of new screenwriters — Dan Harris and Michael Dougherty (joining the original’s David Hayter) — and, with them, something resembling a plot. X2 concerns the emergence of a Wrath of Khan–like blast from the X-Men’s past: a human, ex–army commander called Stryker (played with swaggering, Southern-accented gusto by Brian Cox), who holds all the answers to the mystery of Wolverine’s claws and who’d like nothing more than to wipe all mutants off the face of the Earth. Stryker is a baddie so bad that the X-Men must team up with heretofore personas non grata Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, as arresting as ever in a costume consisting of little more than blue body paint and carefully positioned fringe) to combat him, especially when the usually prescient Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) finds himself indisposed at a particularly inopportune moment. And so on and so on, in respectable Saturday-morning-serial fashion.

To say that Harris and Dougherty bring to X2 something of a lighter touch is like comparing the caress of Andre the Giant to that of Arnold Schwarzenegger. For all its ballyhoo about how humans and mutants are more alike than different and can’t we all just get along, their X2 script (much like its predecessor) doesn’t really walk its own talk; its mutants lack the foibles, the elemental neuroses that make the great comic-book-movie heroes so endearing to us. Whereas Hayter gave X-Men all of the wit and charm you’d expect from a guy whose résumé includes vocal performances as the grizzled Snake in the Metal Gear Solid video games, Harris and Dougherty are at least open to the more musical qualities of good comic-book storytelling (save for a shockingly unsubtle scene, soon to be the subject of much parody, in which actor Shawn Ashmore’s “junior X-Man,” Iceman, “comes out” to his suburban-Bostonite parents). They throw Singer some interesting pitches: a grander, more regal Magneto than the first film; a jaunty barroom seduction scene for Mystique; and a Wolverine/Jean Grey/Cyclops love triangle that will become, no doubt, the stuff of many fanboys’ wet dreams. But Singer largely fouls these away — his posture is too stiff, his swing uncertain. (He’s so timid about would-be romantic scenes that they become unintentionally hilarious.) New writers notwithstanding, Singer’s approach to X2 is very much of the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school, resulting in a movie that, even at its best — a thrilling jailbreak scene that’s the closest thing in either X movie to a rousing set piece — seems tame and unmemorable.

Ask around about X-Men and you’ll hear all manner of excuses, especially from folks who claim to like it. You’ll hear that the movie was hunkered down by the burden of too much exposition (which it was), by having too many characters (true again) and by last-minute edits designed to bring the running time under two hours (which, if anything, has made the movie seem longer and more torpid). But what no one seems to be saying — though it’s the two-ton elephant rifling through their comic collections — is that, for all his obvious understanding of and fidelity to the X-Men universe, Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil) doesn’t seem to particularly like telling fantasy stories. Watching both X-Men and X2, you wait, and then wait some more, for a measure of real affection (to say nothing of invention) to spill out from the screen — the way it does in the Lord of the Rings movies, in The Matrix and, more to the point, in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. And it never comes. Singer goes through the hollow motions as well or better than many of his contemporaries (both X-Men movies are preferable to both Blade movies, to say nothing of Spawn and Daredevil), grabbing hold of some superficial genre gloss without any of its emotional underpinnings. But neither he nor the actors onscreen seem to be having much fun doing it. This is a movie made by Magneto.

X2 | Directed by BRYAN SINGER | Written by MICHAEL DOUGHERTY, DANIEL P. HARRIS and DAVID HAYTER, from a story by ZAK PENN, HAYTER and SINGER | Produced by LAUREN SHULER DONNER and RALPH WINTER | Released by 20th Century Fox Citywide


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