Tuesday, June 17, 2014

X-2


‘X-Men’ left much unresolved, not least the Cyclops-Jean-Wolvervine triangle, the enigma of Wolverine’s background, and matters concerning the mutant-bashing Senator Kelly, last seen being impersonated by Mystique. ‘X-2’ picks up the political thread of the narrative with an opening sequence which automatically establishes it as a classic of its kind. In a kinetic display of both editing and CGI that still looks the biz 13 years on, Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a mutant seemingly acting alone, infiltrates the White House, gives any number of Secret Service guys the run-around, breaches the Oval Office and comes damn close to filleting the President.

This, needless to say, puts the government in a bit of tizzy and paves the way for Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox) – a man who might as well have “military-industrial complex” tattooed on his forehead – to influence policy and target the mutant community to his own ends. Stryker’s hatred of all things X has a provenance closer to home than he’d probably care to admit.


Meanwhile, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has done some digging into his amnesiac past but come up with nothing and returns to Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart)’s academy still champing at the bit that Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) remains committed to her relationship with Cyclops (James Marsden) when he’d prefer to be playing hide the mutant salami with her. Meanwhile, Rogue (Anna Paquin) is trying to kickstart a romance with Bobby Drake (Shawn Ashmore) a.k.a. Iceman, though Ice-moody-teenager would be an arguably better name. 

‘X-2’ skirts the pitfall marked “soap opera” but expertly avoids it (unlike, as we shall see, ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’). In fact, the handful of twee character interactions that returning director Bryan Singer sprinkles the first twenty minutes with only serve to emphasise what’s at stake when the plot kicks into high gear, Stryker’s men launch an assault on the academy, and the all-powerful Cerebro – the machine by which the already telepathic Xavier can locate and track all mutants – falls into the wrong hands.


Meanwhile, Magneto (Ian McKellan) – last since incarcerated in all an-plastic prison – finds an ingenuous (if slightly cheat-y) means of escape, and reunites with Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). That Stryker, who has by this point captured Xavier, also has designs on Mystique finds himself the enemy of both the suddenly leaderless X-Men and the already antagonistic Magneto. The stage, to use an old expression, is set.

‘X-2’ is a mammoth leap forward from the admittedly accomplished first instalment. There’s much more action – the Oval Office opener; the attack on the academy; Pyro (Aaron Stanford) cutting loose on a SWAT team (his temperamental nature is something Magneto soon plays on); and an extended finale in Stryker’s secret base – but the characters remain the focus. Speaking of which, the new characters are by and large interesting (again, something that ‘Last Stand’ doesn’t always manager) and the arcs of most of the existing characters are at least slightly extended.

Wolverine remains the focus, certainly for the action set pieces, while Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey get a bit more to do this time round. Berry seems more comfortable with the character. The interplay between Stewart and McKellan remains a joy to watch, while Romijn-Stamos once again bags a (wo)man of the match award for the sheer glee with which her sinuous and deadly Mystique walks away with the film everytime she sashays onscreen. Brian Cox is also awesome as all hell but – hey! – that should be obvious: he’s Brian Cox, motherfuckers, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else delivering a line lik “I was piloting black ops in the jungles of North Vietnam while you were sucking on your mamma’s titty at Woodstock” with such spine-crawling relish. Kudos, too, to Alan Cumming, who makes Nightcrawler creepy, dangerous and somehow dignified pretty much all at the same time.


The backgrounding of Rogue, however, becomes more problematic. She’s given one thing to do in the big finale – land a plane – and she does so with such deer-in-the-headlights panic that it’s difficult to reconcile the Rogue of the movies with the Rogue of the graphic novels. (The worst is yet to come, however, so I’ll save my big Rogue-wuz-robbed rant for the next review.)

The franchise’s touchstone of alienation is given a good workout in this instalment. The idea of mutants as outcasts – social pariahs – is there in Rogue’s inability to engender a “normal” relationship; in the pieces of Wolverine’s backstory that begin to edge into place; in Pyro’s acceptance of Magneto as a father figure; and in Iceman’s betrayal by his own brother. A scene where Iceman’s parents first assure him that “you’re still our son” and then wonder “have you tried not being a mutant” establishes an analogue so self-explanatory that I don’t need to belabour it here.

‘X-2’ is what a superhero film should be: exciting, engaging, possessed of visual panache and a sharp wit; but a film, between all the effects and smackdowns, that grounds itself in who its characters are and what is truly at stake for them. It’s the film in which all the promise of ‘X-Men’ coheres. The ending – in which the shaky alliance of its protagonists with their arch-nemesis Magneto splinters under the latter’s megalomania, and which points to the emergence of Jean Grey’s Phoenix persona – seems to set up a third instalment with the potential to up the ante even further.

Then it all went wrong …

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