Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"X-Men" (2000)

Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan
Written by David Hayter
Directed by Bryan Singer
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 104 Minutes

X-Men [Blu-ray]Having so thoroughly enjoyed 2011's "First Class" prequel, I was eager to revisit the earlier films in the "X-Men" franchise.  2000's "X-Men" was the first film I ever saw in theatres four times, still a record to be broken (though I did match it with 2007's "Transformers").  It's a wonder that "X-Men" turned out as good and as popular as it did; films languishing so long in development hell usually fall flat on their faces when they finally hit screens, if at all.

The film opens in Poland, 1944 as a young boy is separated from his parents at a Nazi concentration camp.  (Sound familiar?)  The boy, Erik Lehnsherr, becomes distressed, and displays strange powers: the ability to control metals.  Decades later, a young girl named Marie (Anna Paquin) kisses her boyfriend, putting the poor sod in a coma.  She takes off, eventually making her way into Canada and coming across a bar in the middle of nowhere.  In this bar she meets Logan (Hugh Jackman), an amnesiac mutant who has razor sharp claws that can extend from his hands and the ability to heal almost any wound.  Soon enough, the two are attacked by a mutant named Sabretooth (Tyler Mane).

After being rescued, the two find themselves at the home of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) who explains that Logan (aka Wolverine) is the target of Erik Lehnsherr, now called Magneto (Ian McKellan), for reasons unknown.  Logan meets the rest of the team: telekinetic Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), team leader Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden) who can shoot energy from his eyes, and Ororo Monro/Storm (Halle Berry) who can control the weather. 

Meanwhile, the United States is embroiled in a political debate regarding the controversial Mutant Registration Act, a law which would force mutants to come forward and disclose their identities and powers to the government.  Leading the pack is bigot senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), who is kidnapped by Magneto, and experimented upon.  What is Magneto's ultimate plan?  What does it have to do with Wolverine and Rogue?  Why should the X-Men bother to protect humans that hate and fear them?

A decade later, "X-Men" is still a highly entertaining film, even as its flaws (which were apparent at its initial release) seem even more highlighted.  Director Bryan Singer is obviously trying to shoot and edit around budget problems and even perhaps his own inexperience at directing special effects-laden action sequences.  He smartly limits the scope and length of the action sequences until the end of the film, but even then has trouble really making them click.  Even though the film is largely well shot, with lots of great compositions, it can't hide the fact that there simply wasn't enough money, time or talent behind the scenes to make a truly first-rate action picture.

But what makes "X-Men" succeed is the strength of its script and the performances of its cast.  "X-Men" simply wouldn't work if not for the fact that Singer is able to create excellent emotional connections between the characters, and with the audience.  Right from the opening scene at the concentration camp, "X-Men" proves that it has more to say than throwing special effects and fights at the audience.  The parallels between mutant bigotry and civil rights causes in our own world today are deftly handled, and Magneto's motivations are clear and well-played.

The casting of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan as Professor X and Magneto is a stroke of genius (even if Stewart is a little obvious, having been a fan-favorite choice for well over a decade), and watching the two of them interact on screen is a joy.  There's a real sense of history between the two, and the pairing is a class act that brings a lot of weight and emotion to the film.

The breakout star of "X-Men," of course, is Hugh Jackman, who plays Wolverine to a raging T.  Fans would, as they often do, find something to complain about.  One of the worst things I heard about Jackman playing Wolverine is that he's too tall... As though being 5-foot-2 is supposed to be some kind of defining character trait?  What matters is that Jackman gets the character - the barely controlled rage, the seemingly uncaring asshole that really has a heart of gold.  He just won't let himself get attached to anyone.  He's a mutant, hated and feared wherever he goes, with a temper control problem and a memory with more holes in it than a used target at a practice range.

The weak link of the cast is Oscar-winner Halle Berry, who plays Storm in such a wooden manner, with a terrible accent, that she ruins every single one of her line readings.  James Marsden also seems miscast as Cyclops; he comes across as too young for Famke Janssen's Jean Grey.  His softer voice also doesn't seem to fit the role of a commander, and it becomes obvious at times he's trying too hard to come across as bigger and deeper than he really is.

But despite these problems, "X-Men" is good.  Though the action doesn't seem impressive, save for some of the fights at the climax, the emotional connections it forms are solid, the dialogue is always entertaining and most of the cast is really quite impressive.  It's a nice starting point, setting up a franchise that would go in bigger and better directions the next time around.

See Also
X-Men: First Class