(NOTE: I've received a couple complaints about this review containing spoilers. That wasn't my intention, but I thought you should be warned.)
Opening with a chilling evil-mutant breach of White House security that feels especially ominous in today's terrorist-tinged political atmosphere, "X2: X-Men United" is gripping from frame one and doesn't let go for 135 minutes.
Breaking off from a tour of the presidential residence, a creature known as Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming in sharpened teeth, dark blue skin and extensive ceremonial scars) evades Secret Service agents by bursting into a puff of paint-like mist that instantaneously gusts across rooms and reconstitutes itself into solid humanoid form long enough to, say, snap a guard's neck, before evaporating into blue vapor again and surging into the Oval Office.
This attempt on the president's life fails, with Nightcrawler leaving behind a knife emblazoned with the words "mutant freedom now!" But the scene instills the film with a tension that director Bryan Singer maintains throughout the story, about a Machiavellian military adviser to the president attempting to eradicate the mutant population of the Earth.
For the uninitiated, the comic-spawned "X-Men" films take place in a near-future where a leap in evolution has created a emerging multi-race of variously super-powered "homo superiors" that have been ostracized from society and split into two factions led by sage but aging one-time friends.
One group, under the control of embittered metal-manipulator Magneto (Ian McKellen), is determined to take over the world rather than be subjected to humanity's scorn and fear-fueled threats of internment. The others, lead by uber-telepath Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), lie low at a school for "gifted" children (really a training facility for young mutants learning to control their powers) and work behind the scenes believing Man and X-Men can eventually live together in peace.
But in "X2," Xavier's school comes under attack by Army Special Forces -- in an intense, scary and brilliantly-executed raid scene -- under the command of Gen. William Stryker (Brian Cox), a military scientist whose years of torturous secret experiments on mutants once led to the creation of an adamantine metal skeleton in Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), one of Xavier's X-Men.
A rage-filled amnesiac with retractable blades in his knuckles and feral facial hair, Wolverine emerged as the franchise's primary hero in 2000's "X-Men." In this superior sequel, he comes face-to-face with his past as the good mutants -- now running for their lives -- regroup and team up with Magneto's enemy cadre to hunt for Stryker's hidden base and foil his plan.
While "X2" never scrimps on its comic-book fantasy or its astounding action sequences (more on those to follow), what sets this movie apart from almost every other entry in the superhero genre is its depth of character development and its underlying, well-integrated themes of tolerance, acceptance and humanity.
The fact that the mutants are hated and feared for their differences and may soon be subjected to a Congressional Mutant Registration Act (not unlike what's being forced on immigrant men of Arab descent right now) is no coincidence. But Singer draws these parallels to current events quite eloquently, and without being heavy-handed.
More significantly, the director allows time, within the action, to cultivate the spirits and souls of his heroes -- and even some of his villains. Jackman, Stewart, McKellan, Cumming and co-stars Famke Janssen (as telekinetic genius Jean Grey) and Anna Paquin (as deadly-to-the-touch teen mutant Rogue) give strong, even moving, performances as they face various dangers and tragedies.
But the best example of Singer's attention to detail comes in the form of kung-fu-fighting villainess shape-shifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), whose body language is subtly but distinctly carried on even when she morphs into the guise of other characters. When she takes the shape of Wolverine, for example, Jackman plays Mystique-as-Wolverine with a slight air of femininity that most people won't even notice. But Singer made sure it was there.
Halle Berry's weather-controlling good-guy Storm is once again neglected in this sequel's storyline (but with 10 main characters, something had to give) and the plot is plagued by a few logical loopholes, especially in the finale, which takes place at an apparently (and absurdly) abandoned dam (there's not an employee in sight) where Stryker's lab is hidden.
Singer has an awesomely effects-laden climax in store, which -- along with a ferocious showdown between knife-knuckled Wolverine and Stryker's sexy, razor-fingered mutant henchwoman (Kelly Hu) -- is more than enough to take your mind off any misgivings.
But it's 64-year-old McKellan who gets the picture's coolest, most creative action sequence all to himself. Placed in an all-plastic prison cell at the end of "X-Men," Magneto breaks out of jail halfway through this film by magnetically sucking excess iron out of a guard's bloodstream -- like bullets shooting out of his body -- then forms the metallic globs into projectiles he manipulates to blast his way to freedom.
"X2" has plenty more spectacular sequences, but I'll leave you to discover those yourself.