- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

“X2,” the second in what could become an X-tensive movie franchise for Marvel Comics’ X- Men superheroes, fails to guard against creeping tedium, absurdity and overcompensation. The freakish stalwarts portrayed three summers ago are menaced by a merely human nemesis for the double-clutching duration of “X2: X-Men United,” which elects to begin and conclude with infiltration of the White House by X-specimens of one sort or another.

The opening assault introduces Alan Cumming as a new strange one, with a German accent yet. Nicknamed Nightcrawler, he sports a satanic tail and leaves inky traces while eluding Secret Service agents. Although exposed as a susceptible dupe whose nonaggressive nature has been exploited cruelly, Nightcrawler does create havoc and forces a cringing president to his knees, probably the symbolic thrill spot for Hollywood filmmakers who regard President Bush as a usurper who ought to be taking marching orders from Martin Sheen.

Not to digress, the close call with Nightcrawler inclines the president to down a stiff drink and reflect that there might be some merit in a controversial Mutant Registration Act, a futile measure that enlightened people will scorn at a glance as intolerant folly. It is considered unwise by the pre-eminent wise man among X-Men, Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier. A mental giant confined to a wheelchair, he supervises an academy of gifted (and perhaps talented) mutants at his country estate, X-Ceedingly Fair. (Just kidding.)

Xavier has been bending every effort to soft-soap apprehensive humans, who need to be reassured that coexistence between regular folks and humanoids with supernatural destructive powers is achievable. The White House attack enhances the credibility of an X-kind nemesis called Stryker, portrayed by the burly and implacable Brian Cox. A former military commander, Stryker seems to have a private special-ops army of dubious prowess at his command, plus secret facilities tucked into an abandoned dam.

It’s amusing to observe that this hideaway goes undetected when Hugh Jackman as X-Man Wolverine tramps around its spooky grounds in an early sequence. Not a suspicious sliver in his whole adamantine body, one gathers. But then where would the competitive situation be if superheroes were really super? Conveniently, they prove inattentive or their powers are on the fritz. X-Woman Jean Grey, portrayed by Famke Janssen, confesses to the smitten Wolverine that her telepathic skills have grown faulty. It’s always something.

Anyway, expedient unpreparedness allows Stryker’s minions to storm the Xavier mansion, sending Wolverine into a fury and most of the young residents into flight. Teenagers are expected to identify closely with Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore and John Allerdyce as the student-body trio called Rogue, Iceman and Pyro, respectively. No law says you have to be impressed.

Fighting back obliges the better class of superheroes to form a brief alliance with the confirmed tyrant in their midst, Ian McKellen as an effete snob called Magneto. In captivity at the close of “X-Men,” he gets to break out and cut various capers in “X2” while also acquiring the companionship of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as shape-shifting sex bomb Mystique.

Maybe some serious thought should be given to a “Flash Gordon” remake. From the look of things, Mr. McKellen and Miss Romijn-Stamos might be close to peerless as Ming the Merciless and Princess Aura. One of the writers does arm Magneto with a legitimately funny squelch of callow Pyro: “Never doubt you’re a god — among insects.”

Mr. Stewart turns out to be a captive of inertia in this chapter; the good professor gets stalled in a telepathic ivory tower called Cerebro, probably the same place Hollywood writers resort to when seeking stale inspiration. Miss Janssen and Halle Berry, who returns as weather-orchestrating Storm, have a bemusing amount of trouble at the controls of a jet aircraft. It’s as if they were waiting for clearance from the tower in places where there is no tower. Indeed, it seems rather pokey to be relying on mere machines when X-craft might allow such tricks as teleportation or maybe a twister express whipped up by Storm.

The confrontations between the X-Men and Stryker’s hired guns are subject to an abundance of second-guessing. When does X-power make you invulnerable, and when is it evidently not worth the bother because a bullet in the head or some other obstruction might be lethal? At least until it’s invalidated in a new scene, like the cliffhanging teases at the end of vintage serials.

A couple of X-Men get to pop back up after receiving death blows. No problem, evidently. Nevertheless, we’re supposed to pretend that another has made the ultimate sacrifice as this installment ends. The hoax certainly will be discarded in an early sequence of the next installment. The choices and rules associated with X-anatomy seem arbitrary in disillusioning rather than amusing respects.

There’s also a considerable amount of flat-footed timing in the chase scenes and hand-to-hand duels. Or fingernail-to-fingernail in the case of Wolverine versus a Stryker bodyguard called Deathstrike, impersonated by Kelly Hu. A better choice of nickname: Knuckles, because her long, sharp claws are anticipated by knuckle-cracking gestures and sound effects.

The finale at Stryker’s dam is prolonged so doggedly that about half an hour of hokum remains after a combatant exclaims, astutely, “It’s time to bring this to an end.” The novelty of first introductions to X-Men on the screen had more entertainment value than this encore, which allows them to overstay their welcome. Weird stuff is meant to grow on X-Men, but their valiant weirdness is not growing on me. If anything, they’ve become stronger arguments for a Mutant Distrust Initiative.


TITLE: “X2: X-Men United”

RATING: PG-13 (Occasional graphic violence in a science-fiction adventure format; fleeting sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Dan Harris and Mike Dougherty, based on characters originated in Marvel comic books. Cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel. Production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas. Costume design by Louise Mingenbach. Visual-effects supervisor: Michael Fink. Music and film editing by John Ottman

RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes


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