X-Men: The Last Stand

Spider-Man still gets the lions’ share of recognition for helping jumpstart Hollywood’s recent comic book adaptation craze, but it was in reality the two-handed success of 2000’s X-Men, with over $300 million in worldwide box office and plenty of critical plaudits to back it up, that really touched off a golden age on the big screen for previously closeted fan boys. Three years later, X2: X-Men United pulled in $100 million more than its predecessor. In shepherding them each through development, director Bryan Singer remained true to enough of the source material not to get strung up, while also pumping up allegorical elements that helped the films read as smart, colorful and only thinly veiled social commentary.

With Brett Ratner taking over the reigns of the franchise, however, X-Men: The Last Stand has a decidedly different feel. Ratner is a facile filmmaker for whom showy scenes come easy. That flair, though, sometimes comes at a price, and here it’s a movie that at times feels strangely underbaked. In no doubt making judicious trims to the shooting script by Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and Zak Penn (X2), Ratner delivers a mostly fun movie, but also one not given the full emotional room to breathe that it has over the course of the trilogy earned.

Picking up where the last film left off, X-Men: The Last Stand centers around both the introduction and widespread manufacture of a gene-altering, so-called cure for mutancy and the reincarnation, in a more powerful and purely instinctual form, of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), now known as Phoenix. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his loyal cadre of otherwise gifted X-Men, including Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, charmingly roguish) and Storm (Halle Berry, finally given a decent hairstyle), are perhaps dismayed by the introduction of this gene suppressant, but committed to a policy of personal choice and nonviolence.

The X-Men are aided in their efforts at measured diplomacy by Hank McCoy, or Beast (Kelsey Grammer), who serves on the president’s cabinet as the Secretary of Mutant Affairs. They’re all drawn into a fight by Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his opposing Brotherhood of evil mutants, who advocate mutant superiority and see the introduction of this choice as an attack on their very being. When Magneto’s captured henchwoman Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) is felled by an antibody-loaded gun, he seizes this as the perfect clarion call — a rallying moment and the necessary excuse to unleash violent retribution on humanity, starting by destroying the cure. Former Xavier disciple Phoenix is the X-factor in all of this, a telekinetic being full of pained rage. Where she chooses to aim it may sway the existent power dynamic and in the end decide the fate of both mutants and humanity alike.

By now in the series, the actors are all fine custodians of their characters, and anyone who’s seen either of the previous movies has at least trace, informal memories of the interconnectedness of their relationships. That leaves plenty of room for action, which Ratner obliges, including a fine scene where Magneto springs Mystique from an armored fleet, and another sequence where Xavier and Magneto each make a pitch for Phoenix’s allegiance. This propulsive pace works fine in dashing through the first act, but paradoxically bogs down the more we learn about the particulars of the narrative. Nowhere is this more evident than during two significant death scenes, when the respective actors share a clinch and the first glimmer of a humanizing connection, only to have Ratner quickly jerk us off to another setting. Singer’s X-Men films were much more dense, and if there’s to be substantial emotional payoff then the final film in the series — excepting the inevitable character-centric spin-offs — shouldn’t run just over 90 minutes minus credits, no matter a brief post-crawl goosing.

The faintest traces of leitmotifs established by Singer are still here, including a love triangle between Rogue (Anna Paquin), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) that highlights the inherent difficulty in making a fundamentally altering choice that at the same time makes life undeniably easier. This is difficult enough to ponder on a personal level, but could or would you make this choice for your child, either adolescent or unborn? It’s a somewhat slippery slope. It’s easy to glimpse, too, in the setting of at least one scene, parallels to the passionate debate over abortion, and even genetic engineering.

Ratner’s style, though, undercuts all of this subtext. It’s ripcord filmmaking, with paint-by-numbers emotionalism. While his preoccupation with surface thrill still makes for a generally pleasing comic book movie, it shortchanges the depth we’ve come to expect from the X-Men franchise. Part of the underlying success of the first movies, a key part of their emotional mooring and tension, was in the potential fluidity of its protagonists and antagonists, and the care given to the difficulty of their individual choices. One could make out discernible intellectual arguments and rationalizations on each side of the fence. We feel precious little of that here.

Then there’s the infuriating slackness and inattention to detail of a scene like when Magneto uproots and moves the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz Island, where the young mutant, Leech (Cameron Bright), who provides the source of the antibody, is being housed. As Magneto sets down the bridge and prepares to loose his minions in an attack, one minute it’s light, the very next shot it’s dark… perhaps easier to render the myriad special effect shots that await in the finale. Galling, certainly, but tellingly emblematic of a film that doesn’t pause to think — or particularly want its audience to, either — about underpinnings it’s previously labored to establish. (20th Century Fox, PG-13, 98 mins.)


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