X-Men Movie Review

As overwrought, over-buzzed, F/X-driven, pure-popcorn summer escapist flicks go, "X-Men" delivers the goods better than most.

You want supernatural baddies bent on world domination? You got it. Explosions? Check. Super-charged, fly-wire kung-fu fights? They're in ample supply. Highfalutin credibility-lending Shakespearean actors hired to chew scenery? Two, even! Visual effect that wow the audience more with their obvious expense than the impression they leave on the retinas? And how!

Plot, you ask? Dialogue? As simplistic as possible, please, and only when absolutely necessary.

Based on the hugely successful Marvel comic book, "X-Men" takes place in a near future where a small but growing population of mutants -- advanced evolutionary oddballs with random extra-human abilities -- are forced to hide themselves and/or their gifts from a nervous ordinary populace and from authorities that would like to see them quarantined.

On the defensive, the mutants have splintered into two groups. One is led by Magneto (Ian McKellen) -- a Holocaust survivor with a supernatural influence over all things metal -- who considers mankind obsolete. He sees this impending mutant roundup as a step toward another concentration camp genocide. (Or if you prefer another metaphor, the movie is littered with them: Racism, Red Scare, AIDS discrimination, McCarthyism.)

Ready to defeat humanity by any means, Magneto has concocted a plan to transform the world's leaders into mutants during a United Nations world summit with the help of some CGI effects and his band of evil genetic aberrations.

Baddie role call: Sabertooth (Tyler Mane) is a malignant mutation of the Beast from "Beauty and the Beast." Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) is a scaly blue shape-shifter with a curvaceous bod and killer martial arts ability. Toad (Ray Park) is a green and pasty, bug-eyed guy with a 20-foot tongue and the ability to crawl up walls. Excellent antagonists all around.

Aligned to stop Magneto is a white-hatted brotherhood of next-step humans that call themselves the X-Men and believe mutants and man can find a way to live together. Lead by Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a sage super-psychic, they include telekinetic scientist babe Jean Gray (Famke Janssen), laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden), lightning-powered Storm (Halle Berry).

When "X-Men" isn't killing time with spectacular (and fairly original) showdowns, it focuses mostly on Xavier's two newest protégés -- hairy, blade-knuckled rebel Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), an apprehensive teenager whose toxic skin literally sucks the life out of anyone who touches her.

Through Wolverine's tender, protective, big brother relationship with Rogue, atypical director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects," "Apt Pupil") does a fine job of injecting a modicum of depth into what is otherwise a pretty standard post-MTV superhero flick.

A cerebral director in a comic book project, he embraces the picture's inherent clichés without succumbing to their poison, and "X-Men" is the better for it.

Sure, just like all post-"Batman" genre heroes the X-Men dress like Hells Angels with charge accounts at Versace. Sure they hang out in a super-high-tech, brushed steel hideout hidden inside Edwardian boarding school. Sure, the story relies on the most simplistic of plot devices and jerks forward in bursts of burdensome expository dialogue.

But at least there aren't any preposterous pauses in the middle of fight scenes for glib sound-bite catch phrases. At least there's enough character development to genuinely attach the audience to some of the heroes. Thanks to Singer's stealthy direction and his respect for his actors' dignity, the movie has an uncommon composure that gives it a sense of nobility other films of its ilk lack.

"X-Men" still blatantly screams "franchise!" throughout, leaving major subplots hanging and stating outright that Magneto isn't done with his anti-human crusade just before the credits roll. But Singer held his superhero flick to a higher standard, and while he breaks no molds he met that standard with respectable results.

Comments

X-Men Rating

" Weak "

Rating: PG-13, Opened: Friday, July 14, 2000

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