X-MEN X-ceeds X-pectations
Movie adaptations of comic books are not renowned for depth of character development. That’s why the sensitive depiction of Wolverine and Rogue in X-Men is such a pleasant surprise. In addition, the movie’s concerns regarding prejudice and alienation are quite impressive. (Fans of sci-fi action needn’t be turned away by these comments. X-Men also features spectacular clashes between mutants with fantastic super powers.)
Neither Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) nor Rogue (Anna Paquin) know why they are different from other people. He is blessed, or cursed, with deadly metal claws that appear during times of great stress. She is unable to touch anyone without siphoning off that person’s strength and memories. When these two outcasts meet, it seems impossible they could form such a strong bond of friendship. Wolverine resembles a cross between Lon Chaney’s Wolfman and the young Clint Eastwood. Rogue just looks like a normal teenager in trouble. But both are mutants, representatives of the next stage of human evolution. They are destined to work together in helping wheelchair-bound Xavier (Patrick Stewart) save mankind from destruction by Magneto (Ian McKellen), his former friend and colleague.
In spite of the film’s dazzling special effects and superb acting by McKellen and Stewart, Jackman’s animal magnetism takes over X-Men. The charismatic Australian actor, making his American film debut, projects a combination of humor and machismo that adds extra excitement to all his scenes. Granted, he’s the one with the snappiest dialogue. When Xavier introduces Wolverine to his oddly named mutant helpers, the feral recruit teases, "Cyclops. Storm. And who are you ---- Wheels?"
Stewart gives the telepathic Xavier that same nobility he brings to the role of Captain Picard in his Star Trek outings. In X-Men, he portrays the benevolent founder of a school where mutants learn to use their special powers in constructive ways. His three gifted assistants are the laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden), the telepathic/telekinetic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), and Storm (Halle Berry), who can summon forth lightning and winds of hurricane force.
McKellen exudes Richard III-like venom as Xavier’s opponent Magneto, one of the world’s most powerful mutants. Believing it impossible for humans and mutants to coexist, he plots to destroy all humankind. Magneto’s henchmen include the giant Sabertooth (Tyler Mane), the shape-changing Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), and the long-tongued, high-jumping Toad (Ray Park). To complete their diabolical plans, Rogue must be captured, and her powers blended with Magneto’s. As Rogue, Paquin appears to experience genuine terror in these frightening scenes. With her quivering voice and nervous facial expressions, she makes Rogue’s dangerous plight seem quite real. (No wonder she won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress in The Piano.)
What are humans doing while all this is happening? One of them, Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), is seeking legislation requiring registration of all mutants. Capitalizing on the general fear and hatred of anyone different, he preaches a philosophy of segregation. "We have to know what the mutants are doing. They have to be watched carefully, " he insists. Davison (Apt Pupil) makes his McCarthyesque character so slimy no one is sorry when he gets an appropriate comeuppance from Magneto.
It’s obvious there’s enough material here for several movies. And that’s the problem. Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) and first-time screenwriter David Hayter have included too many plot threads to follow in the film’s 93 minutes. Consequently, some events seem confusing --- such as why one particular machine disables Xavier but not Jean Grey and what causes Wolverine’s amnesia. Also, there’s not enough time to enjoy each of the mutant superheroes equally. Because Storm receives so much special-effects attention, she emerges as the most amazing of the group. (Her pearl-glazed eyes and flowing blonde hair help too!) But Toad gets short-shrift. He’s in very few shots and contributes little to the mutant battles. Perhaps the X-Men sequel will focus on these neglected areas. Surely there will be one.
(Released by 2000 Twentieth Century Fox and rated "PG-13" for science fiction violence.)