Friday, May 26, 2006
Come back, Bryan!
Fans of the "X-Men" movies know that Bryan, aka "Singer," may be the most underrated superhero of the Marvel Comics-inspired series, his hidden power being able to take a beloved comic-book classic and achieve the impossible task of making it into not just one but two terrific live-action films, both of which managed to avoid taking themselves too seriously or dumbing themselves down.
As "X-Men" aficionados know, Singer mysteriously disappeared after the second installment, leaving unanswered questions as to who would take his place as director, or whether that was even possible. (Meanwhile, he was last seen swooping down to save the day on the "Superman Returns" set.)
"X-Men: The Last Stand" finally delivers the answer, and it isn't pretty. Displaying none of Singer's finesse or judgment, the new director, Brett, aka "Ratner," makes a hash of the story and characters his predecessor brought to such complex, sympathetic life, delivering a pumped-up exercise in mayhem, carnage and blunt-force trauma.
The basics are still in place, with the same core group of physically gifted mutants coping with the powers nature bestowed on them. While mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) oversees his X-Men training school -- where Storm (Halle Berry), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Cyclops (James Marsden) are teaching the next generation of X's, among them Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and his perennially disaffected girlfriend Rogue (Anna Paquin, looking like a young and moody Susan Sontag).
For his part, Magneto (Ian McKellen) is leading his own genetically well-endowed troupe -- headed by the chameleon-like Mystique, played by Rebecca Romijn -- in a less benign training campaign.
The two men come head-to-head when a scientist in San Francisco discovers a cure for mutantism, leading each X-Man (and X-Woman) to make a fateful, even existential choice between retaining their often problematic powers or becoming human.
Chock-full of references to Nazi eugenics, the civil and disability rights movements and even the abortion wars, "X-Men: The Last Stand" suggests that the personal is political whether your skin is brown, blue or turns to ice at the drop of a hat.
The original X-Men still look great, and "The Last Stand" is larded, like the others, with those subtle whiffs of adolescent anxiety regarding physical strength and sexuality that make 1950s comic such ur-texts of the teenage experience. But if Ratner has preserved what Singer started, he fails at taking it in a new direction. The new mutant characters, such as an androgynous bird-boy played by Ben Foster (his character's actual aka is Angel), and a group of unmemorable students at Xavier's School, make no impression. And the ultimate showdown -- which involves the return of Jean (Famke Janssen) -- involves little more than two characters glaring at each other while each undergoes an unsightly skin eruption and fireballs rain down around them. (The spontaneous breakout is equal only to the eye-bulge and the vein-pop in "The Last Stand's" index of ominous physical indicators.)
Jean's inner battle between her warring natures is supposed to provide psychological depth in "The Last Stand," but we've seen it before. This is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" with car crashes, and there are lots of car crashes, whether in the film's big set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge or when they're being hurled, one by one, at an encroaching army of angry mutants. Clearly, Ratner's way of resolving a scene, any scene, is to heap on more of the same, and then more of that, and then more and more and more. He, more than any fictional villain or super-powered evil genius, has finally found the key to destroying the X-Men: He's taken all the fun out.
We can only hope that, as "The Last Stand's" final scene suggests, this isn't a last stand at all, and that Storm, Wolverine, Rogue and the rest will live to fight another day, with a more worthy directorial aide-de-camp.
X-Men: The Last Stand (104 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for violence, sexual content and profanity.