Friday, June 20, 2014

X-Men: The Last Stand

Two immediate observations:

1. ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ is a pile of shite.

2. ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ was directed by Brett Ratner.

But wait, you say, aren’t those statements synonymous? And you’d have good reason for mounting an argument to that effect. But while Ratner’s filmography gives us nothing to which any description kinder than “mere hack work” can be applied, I’m not sure that the poisoned chalice he ended up with could have been salvaged by anyone at the point at which it was entrusted to his stewardship.

A brief history of the film’s production development goes something like this: Bryan Singer really wanted to make the third X-Men film but he didn’t have a fully formed concept for the film, whereas he was ready to go with ‘Superman Returns’. Meanwhile, the studio wanted ‘Last Stand’ in production ASAP and Singer reluctantly left the X-Men for the man of steel. In his wake, names like Alex Proyas, Zack Snyder and Darren Aronofsky were bandied about (I can only imagine the divine madness of an Aronofsky ‘X-Men’ film), but the closest ‘Last Stand’ came to getting a director who had potential to shape the material into something interesting was when Matthew Vaughn was approached. However, with a locked-in release date, Vaughan was concerned that there wasn’t enough time for the script development and pre-production necessary to accomplish the film he wanted to craft (i.e. a worthy successor to ‘X-2’), so he left the project. It would be another six years until Vaughan contributed to the franchise.

In came Brett Ratner, who by this point had helmed a handful of bland comedies and the redundant Hannibal Lecter instalment ‘Red Dragon’ (already filmed by Michael Mann in the mid-80s as ‘Manhunter’). Nothing about him seemed to scream ‘X-Men’, and it would be a cheap and easy shot to add that the finished product bears this out. In his defence, he came to a production rife with scheduling conflicts, producer interference (Ratner and the writers had to fight tooth and nail to retain the Jean Grey resurrection plot strand), a script that was basically a mash-up of two much-loved storylines from the graphic novels, and a surfeit of new characters, including the unspeakably awful sight of Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut.

Opening with half an hour or so of precisely the kind of soap opera storytelling that ‘X-2’ managed to avoid, ‘The Last Stand’ sets up: Jean Grey’s backstory, paving the way for her resurrection as the unstable Phoenix; Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) as Rogue (Anna Paquin)’s rival for Iceman (Shawn Ashmore)’s affections, a complication that exacerbates her feelings of loneliness and isolation; the development of a “cure” for the mutant gene and the divided feelings it inspires in the mutant community; and Magneto (Ian McKellan)’s denigration of same as he builds an army of disenfranchised mutants and plans to strike against a government he is convinced will force the cure on his kind.

Bear in mind that our first glimpse of Magneto was as a child in the Nazi death camps. His swift ascension from tub-thumping voice of the underdog at ad hoc meetings to charismatic leader of a private army infers a parallel with the rise of Hitler in the early thirties, and it seems – briefly, tantalisingly – as if the film might actually have the balls to do something with this subtext. Unfortunately not, and we’re treated instead to an increasingly cack-handed sequence of effects-driven set pieces whose narrative misconceptions are matched only by their shoddy execution.

(SPOILER ALERT) Interesting characters are written off almost dismissively. Mystique is shot by a tranq dart containing the “cure” after just one scene while, by contrast, the fuck-awful Juggernaut gets scene after tedious scene (note to Brett Ratner: ditching Rebecca Romijn-Stamos for Vinnie Jones is NOT a trade-up). Worse, Xavier not only buys the farm but has the indignity of doing so in what is far and away the worst scene in a movie full of scenes that frankly aren’t very good. Sure, a post-credits scene hints at his return by means of a cheat so blatantly insulting to the audience’s intelligence that it’s possible to imagine the warm splash of the script-writers’ urine coursing over your shoes as you watch, but this was in 2006, for fuck’s sake, and it wasn’t till ‘Iron Man’ two years later that staying around till the credits were over became de rigueur. (SPOILERS END)

And while I’m ranting, let’s talk about Rogue. What was Rogue’s special power again? Oh yes, the ability to absorb the strength, memories, powers and lifeforce of anyone she touches. And while the Rogue of the graphic novels certainly considered her abilities a curse, it didn’t stop her from kicking ass in industrial quantities. Moreover, her comic book backstory is considerably darker and more intriguing than anything the movies offered up, not least in her mentorship, at an impressionable age, by Mystique. This a Rogue who’s elegant southern belle demeanour belies a psychologically disturbed and tough-as-nails persona. The Rogue of the films, however, is a mopey emo with a perpetually quivering lower lip. And the script for ‘Last Stand’ renders her at her wettest and least interesting yet. It’s bad enough, through the arc of three films, reducing Rogue to this; but wasting the striking and appealingly quirky presence of Anna Paquin just makes it worse. 

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect, though, is watching ‘The Last Stand’ trying to plaster over all its narrative and aesthetic flaws with ever noisier and more chaotic action scenes. Where Singer shot action in a clean unfussy style, always aware of the spatial relation of character and setting during fights or chases, Ratner’s approach has more in common with an early 90s MTV video edited by a cocaine freak on an espresso bender. Flying bridges! Explosions! Massive chunks of rubble! It’s tedious, unengaging and a massive anti-climax after the carefully crafted movies that preceded it.

Clearly, a new approach to the saga was required. Which brings us to ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’. It says something about the quality control deficiency of ‘The Last Stand’ that I can bring myself to revisit ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ in such a carefree manner.

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