X-Men


Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

(2000) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, Matthew Sharp, Brett Morris, Shawn Ashmore, Sumela Kay, Katrina Florece, Alexander Burton, Kenneth McGregor, Rhona Shekter, Stan Lee. Directed by Bryan Singer

One of the most eagerly anticipated movies maybe of all time this one, and it had all the ingredients necessary for a monster smash hit; comic-book action, eye candy, a respected director, attractive actors, even a few Names. So is it any good?

Certainly, the movie has a rich storyline to draw from, one over 40 years in the making. There are some differences (a few of them fairly major) from the comic book mythos, but director Singer remained true to the comic’s essential storyline. That’s as well he should, as it is one of the most complex and interesting in comics.

It starts with a concentration camp in Poland, where a young Jewish boy named Eric Lensherr (Morris) is being torn from his parents. The hysterical boy manifests a terrifying power, but it is not enough to save his mother (Shekter) and father (McGregor) from their fates.

Flash-forward to the near future. Mutant children with strange and sometimes deadly powers are manifesting themselves all over the globe. Senator Kelly (Davison) is leading a crusade based on anti-mutant hysteria. Kelly wants these mutants to register themselves as you might register a handgun. Eventually, the senator means to see every mutant locked away in an effort to keep society safe from these potentially dangerous mutants.

Reasonable voices, such as that of respect geneticist Dr. Jean Grey (Janssen) are being shouted down by the hysterics. In the background, the young concentration camp survivor – now an immensely powerful man who can control magnetic fields at whim and who calls himself Magneto (McKellen),  broods and plots. His close friend, the charismatic and immensely powerful psychic Charles Xavier (Stewart), plots and hopes.

Meanwhile in northern Alberta a lonely, frightened teen calling herself Rogue (Paquin) hooks up with a surly, curmudgeonly loner named Wolverine (Jackman). Turns out Wolverine has an incredible regenerative power – he can take a great deal of punishment and heal at an astonishingly rapid rate. With a skeleton laced with a diamond-hard alloy called adamantium and claws of the same material that can shoot out from his knuckles and slice through virtually anything, he can dish it out, too.

The two are attacked in the Canadian wilderness by a lion-like creature called Sabretooth (Mane) but are rescued at the last minute by a strikingly beautiful woman of coffee-colored skin and ivory, silken hair who generates her own weather patterns; she is Ororo Munro, also known as Storm (Berry). With her is a boy-next-door type named Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops (Marsden) who can generate devastating force beams from his eyes. The two take Wolverine and Rogue back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, a place where mutant youngsters can learn to control and refine their powers, as well as gain an education in an almost normalized environment.

They are also gearing up for a fight. You see, Sabretooth is one of a crew that works for Magneto that also includes the agile Toad (Park) whose tongue would make Gene Simmons green with envy, and the alluring, shape-shifting Mystique (Romijn-Stamos) whose normal appearance has her with a strange blue skin. Magneto believes that a war between normals and mutants is coming, and that natural selection favors the mutants, but sheer numbers favor homo sapiens, who will kill off all mutants in order to survive.

Xavier believes that humans deserve to survive but that mutants can be integrated into society. He has assembled a group of X-Men to protect humanity and show them that the two species can work together in harmony. Magneto, however, has plans to win over the hearts and minds of the world’s leaders and he needs a powerful mutant to make that happen – and it isn’t Wolverine.

There is a lot more depth to this movie than the average summer action flick. It examines our tendencies to distrust and be fearful of those different from us — skin tones, religion, sexual orientation, whatever. These “mutants” for the most part are no different than the rest of us, externally. What makes them different generally doesn’t manifest except in specific situations which is true of those that society currently does mistrust. “Normal” is really a term subject to broad interpretation, even outside the comic books.

The eye candy is impressive, but it isn’t what this movie is about. A lot of kudos must go to the casting director; nearly every role is perfectly cast, particularly Stewart and Jackman, who physically resemble their four-color counterparts. The script is well-written and thought provoking but never lacking in the action that summer moviegoers crave. The character who are developed are believable.

The trouble is, you would need a 30-hour miniseries to properly develop all of the characters here, so many get short shrift, particularly Storm who deserves more screen time and more background. Also, if you aren’t familiar with the comic as Da Queen is not much of the details are going to go sailing right over your head. You may want to have a 12-year-old boy with you to explain it.

Hugh Jackman ascended to immediate stardom with his performance here. His Wolverine is at the center of the movie, and Jackman carries it effortlessly. Stewart’s Xavier is not that dissimilar to Captain Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation but that’s just fine; the role calls for the kind of commanding presence and compassion that Stewart invested Picard with. McKellen is astonishingly compelling, as much victim as villain. One can’t help but sympathize with him even as he’s doing horrible things – the mark of a great movie villain. Not every actor out there could bring those qualities – which were always evident in the comic book version – to life.

It isn’t exaggeration to say that the success of this movie opened the floodgates for Marvel to re-define the superhero movie and become the industry force that they have become. The X-Men franchise has continued to flourish with two off-shoots starring Jackman as Wolverine and three other feature films and a fourth scheduled for release in May and a fifth already on the schedule for 2016. If a movie can be this entertaining and at the same time promote tolerance, I’m definitely on board for the series continuing indefinitely.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story used to address issues of intolerance and prejudice. Some nice performances, particularly from Jackman, Stewart, McKellen and Berry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too cerebral for those who like their comic book action non-stop. Some purists might complain about deviation from comic book canon.

FAMILY MATTERS: As is necessary for most comic book adaptations, there is a surfeit of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman started his tradition of beginning his day with ice cold showers whenever he is playing the role of Wolverine on this film. He had jumped into the shower at 5 AM, not realizing that there was no hot water. Not wanting to wake up his wife, he just tolerated and had an epiphany that this was what Wolverine felt all the time – wanting to lash out and forced to hold it all in. He uses these cold showers to get into character and has for every film featuring Wolverine.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release had a wealth of features including an Easter Egg scene involving a well-known Marvel superhero who doesn’t appear in the film (but would later get a franchise of his own), a Fox-TV special called The Mutant Watch that is centered around the Senate hearings on Mutant Affairs, an interview with Singer by Charlie Rose and Jackman’s screen test. There was also a method of integrating deleted scenes into the place in the film where they would have been by means of hitting the enter button on your DVD remote whenever an X-Men logo appeared on the bottom right of the screen. A special edition DVD, known as X-Men 1.5 was also released and while it had an entire second disc of special features, most were of the standard production diary sort which were strangely lacking from the initial release. Most of these are also available on the Blu-Ray edition released in 2009.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $296.3M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

 

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Phantom

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X-Men Origins: Wolverine


Two guys I'd think twice before shaking hands with.

Two guys I'd think twice before shaking hands with.

(20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, Ryan Reynolds, Dominic Monaghan, Lynn Collins, Taylor Kitsch, Will.i.am, Kevin Durand, Daniel Henney, Scott Adkins, Tim Pocock, Stephen Leeder, Peter O’Brien. Directed by Gavin Hood.

One of the truisms of storytelling is “begin at the beginning.” That’s not always possible, but sometimes once we become involved in a story, we want to know more about what preceded it.

James Logan (Jackman) is a mutant. Born in the mid-19th century, he and his brother Victor Creed (Schreiber) are virtually indestructible, their wounds healing literally before our very eyes. Born with the mutant gene of instant regeneration, they are virtually immortal. In addition, they have the weapons to defend themselves; Creed has sharp claws that retract into his fingernails, Logan bony spikes that retract into his knuckles when he’s not using them.

They are born literally to battle, and they move from war to war, starting with the Civil War and all the way to Vietnam, fighting alongside each other but as time goes by, Victor becomes more bloodthirsty, less civilized. After he melts down and decapitates a senior officer, they are sentenced to death by firing squad. That has the same effect as all the other bullets that have passed into them over the decades.

While rotting in their cell, they are visited by Major William Stryker (Huston), an ambitious black ops sort who is putting together a team of specialized individuals, each with their own unique talents; Blob (Durand), a superstrong Southerner with an eating disorder; Wraith (Will.i.am), who can become invisible at will and can seemingly teleport from place to place; Bolt (Monaghan) who can influence electrical devices with his mind, as well as communicate telepathically; Agent Zero (Henney), who can make astonishing leaps that would do any gymnast proud, and also is absolutely deadly with any firearm – and Deadpool (Reynolds), who is awfully talented with a sword and also has the same regenerative ability the brothers have (he also can’t stop talking, which annoys the heck out of his teammates especially Stryker).

Logan is becoming increasingly appalled with the methods the team will go to, and when they massacre an African village, he walks out on them. Victor, on the other hand, revels in the carnage and has found a home and a purpose at long last.

Logan flees to a small town in the Canadian Rockies, where he takes a job as a lumberjack and moves in with a beautiful schoolteacher (Collins) who tells him native stories of the moon and her lover, banished to the Earth for leaving the spirit world, never able to touch again. The lover is the wolverine, howling in despair at the sight of his lost love. Logan is at last at peace, or as at peace as he gets – he is haunted by nightmares of horrible deeds, some of which he’s participated but some, disturbingly, seem to be being committed by his brother.

Logan’s peace is short-lived and the past comes calling, leaving him to cradle his lover’s body in his blood-soaked hands. The animal is awakened in him and he sets out on his path to become Wolverine – Weapon X, one of the most dangerous men on the planet. God help those who stand in between Logan and his revenge.

Director Gavin Hood actually has some pretty good films on his resume (including Tsotsi) and this is his first real major effect-laden blockbuster. There are definitely signs that Hood isn’t as comfortable yet with that kind of film. Granted, he’s also hampered by a very weak script that doesn’t really do the story justice.

There are two main problems here. The story is the first; there is a profusion of characters, some which exist only to give X-fans an a-ha moment. Fanboys are screaming that this isn’t anywhere near canon (and for those familiar with the backstory of Wolverine in the comics, that’s a legitimate gripe) but in all honesty, I’m less interested in slavish adherence to graphic novel continuity than I am with telling a good story, and this ends up not being a very good one. It’s maddening all the more because there are some elements that really work here and it’s a shame that the writers couldn’t maintain that level of quality throughout the two hours; it feels a little padded to be honest.

Second and more egregious are the special effects. Quite frankly, they’re horrible in places and it distracts from the movie. I expect major summer tentpole releases to have at the very least adequate special effects, but the CGI here ranges from ludicrous to downright astonishing (in a bad way). Wolverine’s claws often look fake, which considering this is his fourth appearance in the movies should never happen. There’s a shot near the end of a group of young mutants walking towards a helicopter that is so very obviously green screened, but done so poorly that you wonder if the shot wasn’t done thirty years ago and then shoehorned into this movie. I get the distinct impression that the effects work was assigned out to the various subcontractors far too late in the post-production process and that they were rushed to get them completed in time to make the release date. That’s inexcusable in this day and age.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some plusses in this movie. Jackman has got Wolverine down pat, and Schreiber is a truly menacing Sabretooth (that’s Victor Creed’s supervillain name for all you non-fanboys) who is much more of a threat than the Sabretooth played by Tyler Mane in X-Men. Reynolds makes a really fine Deadpool in his few brief moments in the movie, and I look forward to seeing him in his own movie, said to be getting much attention at Fox. And while the special effects were below par, the same can’t be said for the physical stunts and action sequences which are nicely done.

Overall, the movie is a bit on the disappointing side. I might have hoped for it to be a bit better written and definitely I would have hoped for better effects. Still, it is not without merit. It certainly hits many of the marks that you would expect a big summer action movie to hit, and if you’re looking for mindless entertainment you can certainly do worse. Overall, I’d rate it as sufficiently entertaining to go and see, but I don’t think it got the kind of repeat customer box office it might have gotten with some tweaking. This isn’t Iron Man by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it isn’t Elektra either.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackman makes a compelling Wolverine, and he and Schreiber have some great scenes together. Lots of great action sequences with fight scenes to satisfy the cravings of all summer action movie junkies jonesing for their first fix of the season.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The writing is uneven whose good moments are outweighed by cliches and shortcuts. The special effects are surprisingly bad, and one gets the impression they were hurried and not planned out properly.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of comic book violence and scenes of human experimentation can be fairly intense for more impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman and Patrick Stewart are the only actors to appear in all four X-Men films (Stewart has a cameo near the end of Wolverine). Also, there were two post-credit scenes shown during the movie’s theatrical release; one showing Wolverine drinking in a bar, the other set at the rubble of the film’s final battle. Which ending audiences saw depended on what showing they went to.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: A fascinating conversation with former Marvel Comics head Stan Lee and Wolverine creator Len Wein.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days