The X-Men

USA, 2000. Rated PG-13. 93 minutes.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Bruce Davison, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
Writers: David Hayter (screenplay), Tom DeSanto (story), Bryan Singer (story), based on the Marvel Comics series
Music: Michael Kamen
Cinematographer: Tom Sigel
Producers: Lauren Shuler Donner, Ralph Winter
Directors: Bryan Singer, Corey Yuen (action)


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

A m I capable of enjoying a summer movie anymore? I began to wonder after being underwhelmed by a half dozen dull (Shaft, Gone in 60 Seconds), overwrought (The Patriot, The Perfect Storm), or overbearingly mindless (Mission: Impossible 2) summer releases this year. While many of these were mildly entertaining (I have graded them all a C or C+), they left me feeling... weary. Is this what happens eventually to all movie critics, I wondered. Were summer movies truly getting worse, or was I just jaded? True, I had thoroughly enjoyed two big budget action pics earlier in the year, Gladiator and U-571, but the memory of those films had been buried by the summer onslaught. So I undertook a review of The X-Men with misgivings. Expecting more dissatisfying eye candy, off I went to see The X-Men on opening night. Instead, I found The X-Men strikes an ideal balance between intriguing characters, spectacular special effects, and ultra-cool comic book style. My enjoyment of the film may be the product of lowered expectations, but what can I say? This movie is fun.

The X-Men is based on the eponymous Marvel Comics series, which first appeared in 1963, but whose popularity didn't take off with kids until the late 1970s and ‘80s. The X-Men pitted normal humans against "Mutants"–a group of genetically abnormal humans with special powers such as superhuman agility or telepathy. A small group of Mutants, the X-Men, sided with normal humans, but received little appreciation for it. With its anti-hate social message–fearing what they don't understand, people tend to cast out those who are different, and in so doing, often provoke anger and resentment that causes their fears to become self-fulfilling–The X-Men was wildly popular in particular with young teens who didn't fit in. At one time or another almost all young teenagers experience alienation from society or their peers, and so many teens identified with The X-Men.

I was never a fanatic myself, but in eighth or ninth grade I borrowed a stack of twenty or so X-Men comics from a friend. Though I did not pursue the interest further, I thoroughly enjoyed what I read. I remember thinking how much cooler these superheroes were than the oh-so-square Superman and Fantastic Four. Judging from the number of X-Men comic books being read in the movie theater before the lights went down–I counted at least ten in my immediate vicinity–the series is still a favorite among comic book aficionados today.
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The X-Men is obviously intended to be the first of a series of films, because a great deal of time is spent on exposition. The movie opens with one of those traditional comic book set pieces that establishes one of the protagonists' background–there is always a major event in each hero or villain's background that defines who he or she is. In this case we learn how the leader of the supervillains, Magneto (Ian McKellen), first discovered that he could use magnetic fields to control metal and the reason for his hatred of normal humans.

Two of the heroes also receive a lengthy introduction. As a teenager, Rogue, a.k.a. Marie (the annoyingly affected Anna Paquin), learns that she can practically suck the life out of people she touches. Her first kiss is a disaster. She flees to some cold, snowy place where she has heard that others like her are hiding out. After wandering into a bar, she meets an invincible local prizefighter, Logan (Hugh Jackman), nicknamed Wolverine. Marie stows away on Logan's truck, and then all hell breaks loose. For reasons that become clear later, they are ambushed by Magneto's minions, and then the X-Men intervene.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Congress, McCarthy-like Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) is leading a campaign for mandatory registration of Mutants, likening Mutant children in the nation's classrooms to loaded weapons. Kelly's speech and the dangerous Mutant paranoia that has swept the world spurs Magneto to action. He will eliminate the human threat and establish Mutant dominance on Earth.

At this point the plot becomes significantly less clear, the specifics of Magneto's plan in particular, which is as muddled as the Mutants are biologically improbable. Though the story is a shortcoming, it doesn't torpedo the film, because The X-Men is driven by characters, conflicts, and themes, not by the plot. For example, the lack of a clear-cut distinction between good and evil, at least initially, makes for a more-interesting-than-average superheroes vs. supervillains flick. Magneto's motivations make some sense. After all, Mutants can't help the way they are. It's normal humans who are driving the conflict. This makes it difficult for Logan to choose sides, until Magneto goes too far.

There isn't much time to flesh out the other characters in detail, so we meet them on the run. Led by wheelchair-bound Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who is telepathic, the X-Men are Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), whose special ability is telekinesis, Cyclops (James Marsden), who shoots energy beams out of his eye, and Storm (Halle Berry), who controls the weather. In the opposite corner, we have super-strong Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), shape-changer Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, wearing quite an outfit), and wall-crawling Toad (Ray Park), who has a ten-foot prehensile tongue. Among the notable X-Men not appearing in this first installment (the comic books featured dozens of heroes and villains over the years): Beast, Nightcrawler, Gambit, and Colossus. Even with these omissions, there are still quite a few faces to remember. Not surprisingly, some actors have little to do, Halle Berry in particular.Hugh Jackman

Though Stewart (giving a solid Picard-like performance) gets top billing and the cast is littered with minor stars, the heart and soul of this film is an Australian unknown: Hugh Jackman. Remember that name, because he'll be getting his pick of plum roles. To me, Wolverine seemed like just a basic muscle guy in the comic books (maybe I didn't read enough of them), but Jackman, looking and sounding not unlike Clint Eastwood, turns Wolverine into the most intriguing and riveting character in the movie, bringing the requisite edge and charisma that we associate with these superheroes with a dark side. Of course, McKellen, who was robbed of the 1998 Oscar for Best Actor, is also noteworthy. Some might say, "What is McKellen doing in this movie?" but why begrudge him cashing in his "artistic integrity" for a hefty Hollywood paycheck once in awhile? He's earned it. We can probably credit director Bryan Singer with recruiting McKellen, who worked with Singer in Apt Pupil and obviously trusts him.

Singer may seem an odd fit for an expensive action & effects movie. He is a fine choice, however, because he showed in The Usual Suspects that he knows how to create and maintain interest in unusual characters. For the most part, Singer prevents the characters from being overwhelmed by the special effects and uses them–not the effects or the premise–as the lynchpin of his film, Wolverine in particular. Clearly Singer was chosen specifically for his ability to maintain focus on the characters, because he hands off the action scenes to renowned martial arts choreographer Corey Yuen (Romeo Must Die).

The influence of The Matrix is evident, in the action scenes certainly, but also in that The Matrix made dark action & effects films popular again, and may have persuaded studios to have more faith in a director's vision for a summer movie. That hasn't been the case since the first two Batman movies, which, like The X-Men, did not have much of a story, but did feature plenty of memorable characters (meow!), psychological motivations, and style. All that was lost when director Joel Schumacher took over, substituting more explosions for character development, adding camp, and putting nipples on the Batsuit. Hopefully Singer will stay on for The X-Men sequels, and the X-Men suits will remain nipple-free.

Review © July 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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