Saturday, May 27, 2006

Lights! Camera! (Too Much) Action!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - So far this summer, it looks as if the two-and-a-half star movie has become a trend of sorts. From Mission: Impossible III to The Da Vinci Code and now to X-Men: The Last Stand (**½ out of ****), the summer movies I've seen so far have basically been entertaining but rather shallow affairs---the kind of movies that most of us wouldn't mind watching if we merely wanted to relax and have a good time.

I went into Mission: Impossible III with fairly low expectations anyway, and I more or less got what I was hoping for: a lot of well-done, occasionally awesome action with a few small character touches to make it go down painlessly. But The Da Vinci Code is basically a faintly silly "intellectual" thriller that tries to pass itself off as something arty and serious.

X-Men 3 is somewhere in the middle: a nearly wall-to-wall action movie that doesn't try too hard to be something more, but which nevertheless may leave some people---particularly fans of the first two X-Men films---wishing that it had offered something more than a lot of noise and special effects.

Actually, no, the movie isn't as bubbleheaded as the previous paragraph suggests. In its first half-hour or so, X-Men 3 takes up some fairly intriguing extensions of themes set out in the first two films. A "cure" has been discovered for mutants, and while some mutants understandably jump at this great opportunity to get rid of their mutant deformities---the source of so much frustration and pain for many, like Rogue (Anna Paquin), who cannot make physical contact with anyone without killing that person---others, like most of the mutant in Professor X's (Patrick Stewart) school for "gifted youngsters," feel that this is yet another manifestation of society's inability to be able to simply accept mutants for who they are. This is only marginally different from the threat faced by mutants in the first X-Men film: a McCarthy-esque senator who whips up fear of mutants in order to drum up support for his Mutant Registration Bill. Still, the idea is the same: a marginalized societal group who demands that they be accepted for who they are instead of being polarized.

But while Professor X tries to fight for acceptance through humane methods, old friend Magneto (Ian McKellen---yes, Sir Ian lights up movie screens playing a villain for a second week in a row) is an extremist whose deeply negative view of regular humankind, the first film suggested, came in part from a particularly troubling experience in a Polish death camp during WWII. He advocates total destruction of humans, insisting that there is a war afoot between both humans and mutants.

For me, the fascination of the first X-Men film, directed by Bryan Singer, came not only from the film's elegiac tone---unusual for a comic-book movie like that one---but also from the fact that the main conflict of the film wasn't humans versus mutants, but instead was between humanism versus extremism, with Professor X's band of mutants trying to ward off the vast human destruction being planned by Magneto's band (which includes Rebecca Romijn's oddly compelling Mystique, who can change into any form---even herself, as she does in X2 at one point). Instead of going for a boring good versus evil hook, X-Men pitted "good" guys against each other, thus bringing some welcome thematic complexity to the usual comic-book movie action. One can see why: Magneto's ultra-violent approach to solving the problems of mutant outsider status would certainly not do any good as far as changing people's already prejudiced impressions of mutants.

Thematic complexity, indeed, is something that all three X-Men films have in common. But, for me, the first film remains the best because it was the most serious in trying to explore its gray areas while delivering on its action. It was gripping because it dared to take its issues and its characters seriously, and dared you to go along with its contemplative flow as well. Its sequel, X2: X-Men United, also directed by Singer, lost some of that richness even as it upped the ante on action and special effects, but it still managed to come up with some startling images and some cool action sequences and still kept its eye on its characters and themes.

But X-Men: The Last Stand barely seems to have any time to delve deep into the issues it raises; in fact, until its bravura climax, it doesn't seem to have much time to craft expressive imagery either. (There is nothing, for instance, as thoughtfully edited and framed as the first meeting of Professor X and Magneto in an opening scene in X-Men, in which Singer eyeline-matches both X and Magneto separately, both edged toward the right side of the frame, suggesting the similarity of both characters even as they hold entirely different philosophies.) The director of this supposedly final installment of the series isn't Bryan Singer this time around---he was busy with the upcoming Superman Returns---but Brett Ratner, a Hollywood gun for hire who made Jackie Chan look slow in the two extant Rush Hour films. Like most action hacks, Ratner seems more interested from getting from one action scene to the next than in trying to make some kind of artistic statement, and so X-Men 3---more so than X2---is paced like a B-movie action thriller, hopping from one high point to another. Gone for the most part is the serious, even meditative tone of the first film and the visual ingenuity and even beauty of the second.

Perhaps it's a tribute to how good the first two films were in setting up its themes and characters that X-Men 3 occasionally rises above its B-movie trappings. Having lived with these characters for two films now, we can guess, for example, what Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is thinking when he sees a resurrected Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). And even if the script, by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, isn't above throwing in excruciatingly lame one-liners and lines of dialogue to some of its characters (bad-guy mutant to good-girl mutant: "I'm Juggernaut, bitch!"), it does manage to bring in some of that allegorical spirit that distinguished the first two films, and raise some fascinating issues about how even the most well-meaning of people---like the doctor who develops the cure in this film---can still engender division within a community. Are mutants merely diseased, or should they be considered as human as the rest of us?

Unfortunately, it has to attend to theme and character in the margins as the action scenes and special effects eventually take over. Certainly, the special effects in this movie are far from bad: in fact, they're actually pretty awesome, and the action scenes are often quite gripping and impressive. But it's disappointing to see an X-Men movie that, when all is said and done, eventually looks and feels just like every other wall-to-wall action comic around. The characters and the themes of the film have to fight the action scenes for air---and I think they lose.

Ratner hasn't disgraced the franchise, however. The film still retains that wonderful complexity of the original X-Men. Good guys and bad guys still aren't so cleanly defined, and, when allowed to flower, complicated emotion remains. Perhaps this is illustrated best in what happens to Jean Grey in X-Men 3: we discover that she is a Class 5 mutant, so powerful that, when her mind is free of Professor X's mental blocks, she can be an extremely dangerous force. (Her bad side is called "Phoenix.") She isn't evil: she just has so much anger and rage that, essentially, she can't help it. But glimmers of her good side still remain. And Wolverine remains torn between fighting her---because, really, he's the only one stands a chance against her, because of his self-healing power---and saving her. This ambivalence sets up the best moment of the film: the climactic final action scene, which leads up to a showdown between her and Wolverine that ends with the film's lone genuine moment of operatic grandeur.

Two last things: 1) Hugh Jackman's Wolverine has always provided the heart of the X-Men films, but I wonder if anyone else feels that he was much more interesting in the first film and to some extent the second, when he was more anguished and suspicious, and when Jackman showed more glimmers of the kind of rebellious sensuality that made James Dean a star. He's still watchable here, but the character has, perhaps inevitably, become a bit dull over time as he's become nobler.

And 2) Jeez, is young kid actor Cameron Bright now seemingly in everything? From bathing with Nicole Kidman in Birth to tagging along with his morally compromised smoking lobbyist father in Thank You for Smoking to playing the kid who provides the miracle mutant cure in X-Men 3, he may be our next Haley Joel Osment: the kid actor who refuses to act conventionally cute, and instead goes for the creepy vibe. (Not saying that's necessarily a bad thing...until he gets typecast...)

So the lowdown on X-Men: The Last Stand is this: a disappointment compared to the first two X-Men films---especially the first one---but serviceable as summer action entertainment. Thus, two and a half stars. Middle of the road. Just like most of my critical reactions to movies so far on this blog, it seems.

P.S. I don't usually stay all the way through the end credits for the films I watch in theaters, but now that I've discovered that there was an extra scene following the end credits of X-Men 3...unless someone spoils the extra scene online in the future, I'm going to be kinda haunted by the apparently important extra scene that I missed. For those of you who haven't gone to see the movie yet, then, stay until the end credits have finished rolling!

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