Thursday, June 9, 2011

"X2: X-Men United" (2003)

Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan
Written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and David Hayter
Directed by Bryan Singer
Rated PG-13 - Violence, language
Running Time: 133 minutes

X2: X-Men United [Blu-ray]"X2" is one of those rare sequels that surpasses the original in almost every way.  With a much bigger budget, more assured direction and a well-chosen cast of new characters, "X2" expands and improves upon the universe created in the first film. 

It begins not long after "X-Men."  Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has found the abandoned military base in Canada that Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) said might hold clues to his past.  But when he isn't able to find anything, he returns to New York to ask the professor for more help digging through his memories.  Meanwhile, a mutant with the ability to teleport himself from place to place, Kurt Wagner, aka Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), breaks into the White House and brazenly assaults the President of the United States. Before he can kill the president, Nightcrawler is wounded by the Secret Service and escapes.

Worried that the government's response could prove disastrous for mutant-kind, Xavier tasks Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Storm (Halle Berry) with finding Nightcrawler before anyone else.  Unfortunately, Xavier's fears are about to be proven true: a black-ops military man named William Stryker (Brian Cox) convinces the president to authorize an assault on Xavier's mansion, which he terms a "mutant training facility."  He's gathered intel on the mansion by torturing the imprisoned Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellan), Xavier's old friend and nemesis, now called Magneto. 

Stryker's assault is brutal, and he captures a number of the mutants at the school, including Xavier and Cyclops (James Marsden).  Wolverine, Rogue (Anna Paquin), Bobby "Iceman" Drake (Shawn Ashmore) and John "Pyro" Allerdyce (Aaron Stanford) manage to escape.  Together along with Jean, Storm, Nightcrawler and eventually Magneto and the shapeshifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) they must stop Stryker's endgame, which goes farther than even the President realizes, and rescue Xavier and the other mutants before it's too late.

"X2" sounds really complicated on paper, but the script deftly manages to balance all of these storylines.  Even practically overflowing with characters, "X2" never feels like anyone's getting the short shrift, except maybe Cyclops.  A much larger budget means that the action sequences are bigger, longer and slicker than the previous flick, helping to make "X2" a much more cohesive and satisfying whole now that the production value can match the strength of the writing and performances.

The new additions to the cast are pretty wonderful.  Brian Cox is perfectly menacing as Stryker, making a triumvirate of awesome with Stewart and McKellan to bring real weight to a movie that could easily have been simple dumb summer fare.  The depth of his hatred for mutants doesn't become fully apparent until late in the game, but when it comes, it's one of the scripts best developments.  Likewise, Alan Cumming is excellent as Nightcrawler, a mutant who, like others, is hated and feared for his appearance and abilities but also maintains a strong sense of faith and religion.  Cumming plays Nightcrawler as humble and even a bit wise, but also tortured by how he's been used to commit grievous crimes. Expanding his role from the first film, Shawn Ashmore gets to help solidify the film's bigotry themes with a particularly intriguing "coming out" scene to his parents, aided by his girlfriend Rogue and humorously watched over by Wolverine. 

The action sequences are bigger and badder here.  Singer constructs several breathless sequences, especially the opening attack on the White House and the assault on Xavier's mansion.  Wolverine's fight with Yuriko aka "Deathstrike" (Kelly Hu) is also pretty spectacular, as the two are evenly matched with adamantium claws and advanced healing abilities.  Both this sequence and the mansion assault are excellent showcases of Wolverine's brutal combat abilities, as he's not afraid to slice and dice with those claws, tearing through Stryker's commandos like butter.

"X2" is a great superhero flick.  Strong characters, great direction and action rightly put this one as among the cream of the crop in this genre.