- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2000

Judging from an overflow press screening, "X-Men" should have a substantial public juvenile and adult waiting to see how it turned out. The answer: Things could be a lot worse, but only lovesick admirers are likely to confuse it with a classic.

Hatched by Stan Lee and launched as a Marvel comic book series in 1963, a prototype called "The Uncanny X-Men" failed to catch on. It was successfully resurrected a decade later under the supervision of another writer, Chris Claremont. The prospect of a live-action, big-budget movie version has lingered for almost a generation.

The X ensemble consists of futuristic mutants who possess an array of superhuman powers. The adepts have split into antagonistic groups, one favoring protection of and integration with mere humans, the other keen on conquest and slaughter.

The movie was entrusted to director Bryan Singer of "The Usual Suspects" and "Apt Pupil," which would tend to suggest a partiality for the despotic side of the equation.

Mr. Singer begins with a portentous prologue that remains bewildering for the rest of the film: a World War II concentration camp setting in Poland, evidently the grim birthplace of the archvillain, Ian McKellen as the vindictive Magneto.

Is this part of X-Men lore? Or is this an inside joke from Mr. Singer and Mr. McKellen? The two collaborated on the loathsome "Apt Pupil," where the latter was cast as an aging Nazi criminal perversely admired by a contemporary American teen-ager.

Magneto's juvenile self, Erik Lehnsherr, is identified as a prisoner of the Nazis at some point. What is never clarified is how he escaped this particular deathtrap and evolved into the resident wicked one of a comic book universe. It looks as if Mr. Singer and his writers are just invoking the Holocaust for a gratuitous shiver.

Mr. Singer takes quite awhile to get us centrally located, at an idyllic private school for gifted and talented young mutants supervised by the senior good guy, Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). In a wheelchair but mentally formidable, Prof. Xavier maintains a tolerant view of human fears and suspicions about his proteges, who can be alarming.

The newest recruit, Anna Paquin as Mississippi mutant Rogue, who wanders in after a second overblown prologue, teems with electromagnetic energy that can disable anyone she touches. So, she avoids touching fellow creatures.

Rogue also is a roundabout device for introducing us to the gnarliest good mutant, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, a hirsute brute who springs claws from his hands and feet. Sort of a salvageable Freddy Krueger, he has the most potent Halloween get-up in the bunch. His bark may seem worse than his scratch because he also looks funny, rather like the Fonz crossed with Michael Landon's teen-age werewolf.

The preliminary stuff leaves you curious about the backgrounds of Prof. Xavier's three trusted associates: Famke Janssen as telepathic, telekinetic Dr. Jean Grey; Halle Berry as platinum-tressed, weather-beckoning Storm; and James Marsden as laser-orbed Cyclops. Their origins might be just as intriguing. They might even make more sense of a far-fetched kind.

Xavier and his charges are under siege from Magneto and his thugs. Most of the dirty work is delegated to a trio of superfiends: Sabertooth, a hulk played by wrestler Tyler Mane; Toad, a long-tongued predator assigned to Ray Park, who was the Kiss-costumed Darth Maul in "Star Wars, Part I: The Phantom Menace"; and Mystique, a shape shifting, blue-skinned mermaid embodied by model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, perhaps destined to arouse rampaging Web site lust.

Mr. McKellen administers hands-on torture at the expense of Bruce Davison, cast as a senator who is lobbying for bills to control the mutant population. One of the surprise elements in the script is that this caricatured bigot acquires a certain measure of sympathy after being tortured to death.

The noble X faction looks at a keen martial disadvantage until the finale, which finds Magneto trying to sabotage an international conference staged at Ellis Island, with the Statue of Liberty as a nearby prop and battleground. Once the introductions are out of the way, the movie develops an adequate melodramatic purpose and momentum. It never seems especially fresh or stylish, however, while pretending to appease adventurous or superhuman longings.

TWO STARS OUT OF FOUR STARS

TITLE: "X-Men"

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional ominous episodes and graphic violence in a science-fiction and comic-book adventure format)

CREDITS: Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Ed Solomon and Christopher McQuarrie, based on a comic book series created by Stan Lee.

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

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