review by Gregory Avery, 14 July 2000

The new X-Men film starts, during a time in the "not too distant future", with a hirsute Washington senator (Bruce Davison) addressing a divisive issue, albeit not one having to do with race, gender, or sexual orientation, but -- genetic nonconformity. The human race, it seems, is mutating, whether it likes it or not, but that doesn't stop people from finding a way to turn it into an us-versus-them situation for personal gain. Quite easily, the film slips this plot device into use in a way which makes it seem perfectly believable. The mutants who are springing up in our midst have powers and abilities which are unusual, different, even dangerous. They must be registered. Do we want them teaching our children in our schools? Or in our homes?

Along with the Fantastic Four, X-Men was one of the "cool" comics to read when I was growing up, because it not only suggested that the things which keep you from not "fitting in" with everyone else were not that bad after all, but could be entirely beneficial, indeed. Over the thirty years since its inception by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, X-Men took on the qualities of an ongoing epic story, and the film Bryan Singer has directed does its best at capturing most of the original material's most distinguishing qualities.

In the film, an adolescent girl (Anna Paquin) discovers, in a terrifying way, the sudden onset of her special abilities -- an inability to have physical contact with anyone else. She becomes a runaway, and, in a snowy part of Canada, meets a reticent bar fighter who goes by the name of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) -- he has the ability to produce lethal, badger-like claws, only longer and made of steel, from his fists when in a confrontation situation. Jackman, who's quite good, brings a guarded, feral quality to the role, but he also shows how, when he sees the cast of beautiful desolation in Paquin's face, the most best intentions in his character would come forth, gradually but irresolutely, and the two characters end up creating a special bond between themselves.

Paquin's character, who takes the name of Rogue, and Wolverine end up finding themselves in an institute run by Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who teaches mutants how to use their powers, instead of letting their powers use them, and fosters a deeply-felt belief in respecting humanity, despite the fact that mankind would very well like to get rid of them.

The film turns out to have snap, smarts, wit, gentleness at times (a young man gives Rogue a flower, cupped in his hand, that he has fashioned, out of the air, from ice), style, and, most gratifyingly, action sequences that you can actually watch (they were staged by the superb Hong Kong action director Corey Yuen). I found the film to be entirely enjoyable (even with the, sigh, requisite earsplitting S.D.D.S. sound roaring forth at times), but it still only works up to a point. Some of the characters at Xavier's institute include Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a physician who has developing extrasensory powers; Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes emit violent storms of laser bolts that are controlled with specially designed glasses; and Storm (Halle Berry) who has long snow-white hair and can call down the elements of the sky when she turns her eyes pearl-white.

On the other side, there is Magneto (played by no less than Ian McKellen, who, with Davison, appeared in Singer's film Apt Pupil). He -- in an opening scene that's a rather audacious move for a summer blockbuster picture -- discovers his electromagnetic powers as a boy in Poland, when his parents are dragged away by the Nazis. Now, he figures the only way to protect himself and other mutants is by turning everyone into a mutant ("'Homo sapiens' and their guns," he says desultorily, when faced with a passel of armed policemen), and one of his helpers is Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), who can assume any guise and then change back into her original form, a blue creature whose skin looks as dappled and textured as an oil painting by Van Gogh.

The film tries to keep things centered by interjecting a believable, human touch in even the most outlandish situations, but it loses the center of its story. This would logically seem to be the experiences that Rogue and Wolverine have while they essentially try to find their identities and determine their fate. But there is also the contest between Dr. Xavier and Magneto, and Magneto's plan to unleash a cataclysm on New York City -- from the top of the Statue of Liberty, yet -- that, according to Xavier, would be worse than even Magneto knows (we've already seen some of Magneto's handiwork, when he changes a human into a mutant and causes the person to completely liquify).

And the characters of Storm, Cyclops and Jean Grey are sleek, poised figures ready to leap into action when necessary. We just don't get to know them very well. The film doesn't break-through to a more dramatically resonant level, such as Tim Burton did with his two Batman films, or the magical scenes that unfolded between Christopher Reeve's Superman and Margot Kidder's Lois. In those films, the filmmakers did have fewer characters to contend with. But X-Men still has a personalized touch to it, something that has been crafted with a nod towards people and not just special effects, glib condescension, and rampant mayhem. Whether moviegoers who are mostly used to bing-bang-boom will accept or reject a humanistic superhero adventure remains to be seen.

Directed by:
Bryan Singer

Patrick Stewart
Hugh Jackman
Anna Paquin
Famke Janssen
Hugh Marsden
Halle Berry
Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
Bruce Davison
Ian McKellen

Written by:
David Hayter
Tom DeSanto
Bryan Singer

Based on the
Marvel Comics
Series by:

Stan Lee
Jack Kirby







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