“X2” is actually an accurate title for the “X-Men” sequel, as the new picture is about twice as good as the original, although this will mean very different things to various constituencies. Hardcore fans and sci-fi/comix geeks, who propelled the 2000 release to a then-surprising worldwide gross of $295 million, will be thrilled by the big jump in special effects work and new plot developments, while nonconverts and the just-curious will likely find the follow-up merely half as silly as the first edition. Long-incubating anticipation and public fascination with the Marvel Comics world that has only increased during the past three years will propel this $120 million-plus Fox franchise entry to a couple of awesome opening frames beginning May 2 that will be eclipsed two weeks later by “The Matrix: Reloaded.” But “X2” will stick around as a muscular performer for some time thereafter before being relaunched into high-altitude flight as a long-distance home-consumption title.
From director Bryan Singer on through the principal crew and cast members, “X2” sees most of the core team reunited for another turn at bat, to generally improved results except for the running time, which is a needless 30 minutes longer than the original’s. New picture is bigger and more ambitious in every respect, from its action and visceral qualities to its themes. What was implicit before concerning the prejudice against mutants has now been made the film’s overriding concern. While younger viewers may take this focus on bias as something close to profound, more mature auds might tend to view the metaphor as more than a bit simplistic, rendering clear the generational divide the film will undoubtedly encounter.
“Mutant Freedom Now,” reads a note that a would-be assassin leaves on the U.S. president’s Oval Office desk at the end of the startling opening sequence, in which a blue-skinned, fork-tailed beast breaks through White House security, vanishes and rematerializes at will and careens off and through walls and ceilings with inhuman speed. Vigorously executed scene is one of the picture’s best and has the desired effect of whetting the appetite for a couple of hours’ worth of intrigue and surprise.
Since the Liberty Island fiasco that climaxed “X-Men,” conciliatory mutant leader and telepathist supreme Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) has returned to running his elite school for talented young mutants, while his rival, the malign Magneto (Ian McKellen) has been confined in a high-tech plastic cell where, when first seen, he is passing his time reading “The Once and Future King.”
Due to the apparent assassination attempt, national tensions about the perceived mutant threat are at a boil. Enlisted to deal with the problem is William Stryker (Brian Cox), a formidable hawk who has excellent intelligence on mutant activities and, despite his personal prejudices, uses a mutant troubleshooter, Yuriko (hot Kelly Hu).
Sure that the would-be assassin was sent by Magneto, Xavier and his allies are worried their cause of peaceful co-existence will be set way back, notably through the imposition of a Mutant Registration Act. Magneto, by contrast, desires total war as a means to mutant supremacy, and Stryker embraces this challenge by invading the X-Mansion with commandos, a move that meets with limited success due only to the heroic intervention of the hirsute vagabond mutant with retractable metal claws, Wolverine (the wily Hugh Jackman).
Once the mutants are flushed out of the school, screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris disperse the action, to more or less coherent effect, and mix in some new characters with the returnees. And everyone gets to show off his or her special talents, first just for fun and later in key combative situations: the deeply, and apprehensively, telepathic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, whose seriousness of approach manages to push her character to near-realistic dimensions); Storm (a platinum-maned Halle Berry, indifferently used, as before), who can stir up the weather; Scott, aka Cyclops (the blandly handsome James Marsden), whose perennially shades-covered eyes generate laser-strength rays; Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose talent for absorbing others’ traits isn’t very interesting, and her aspiring b.f., Bobby (Shawn Ashmore), who’s a junior Mr. Freeze.
Adding flavor is Nightcrawler, the presidential attacker subsequently revealed to be a devoutly religious German named Kurt Wagner with whom Alan Cumming has considerable fun. But given the most flamboyant opportunities this time around is Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. She’s not really fair to the other actors, in that she effortlessly steals every scene she’s in just by standing around in her blue-hued altogether. When her aptly named character Mystique takes control of the action, actress really turns it on, morphing from one identity to the next more frequently, and much more quickly, than Cher changes costumes during a concert.
Providing weighty balance on the human side is Cox’s Stryker. Although casting the villain as an intolerant right-wing militarist makes for easy caricature, Stryker’s smarts and highly personal motivation break the mold a bit, and the ever-resourceful Cox gives the man a stature roughly equivalent to that which Stewart and McKellen bring to their resilient characters.
Pic’s emphasis on mutants as all-purpose outcasts is brought to a head in a scene in which Bobby “outs” himself as a mutant to his dumbfounded parents. “There’s something I need to tell you,” the youngster announces to his folks in an exchange that concludes with his mother’s assurance that, “We still love you, Bobby.” Thus has the civil rights-slanted agenda that comic series originator Stan Lee intended when he hatched “X-Men” in 1963 mutated into a sexual-orientation spin 40 years later.
More than the first film, “X2” is punctuated with fancy action and effects scenes. Some are just tossed off, such as those in which a kid named Pyro (Aaron Stanford) casually throws fire around. More spectacular are Magneto’s superb escape from his cell, a jet dogfight in which Storm’s sleek plane is stopped inches short of a head-first crash, the faceoff between the equally matched Wolverine and Yuriko, and all the kinetic antics of Mystique and Nightcrawler.
Unfortunately, the climax, set under a frozen lake and dam where Stryker maintains his secret h.q., goes on way too long, although some jumps in continuity, especially involving Jean and Scott, suggest that there may have originally been even more that was cut out. Given that the hopscotching narrative is not constructed in a way that inexorably builds to a peak of excitement, protracted ending envelopes matters in fatigue when it should have left audiences wanting more — like “X3” — sooner rather than later.
Compositions and camera moves worked out by Singer and his habitual lenser Newton Thomas Sigel are handsome and contribute a fair amount of dynamism on their own. John Ottman, a Singer regular who did not work on “X-Men,” returns to the fold to reassert his uniquely ambidextrous skills as an editor and, especially, as a composer with his own good ideas of how to score a mainstream picture. Very high standards are maintained by production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, costume designer Louise Mingenbach, visual effects supervisor Michael Fink and special makeup designer Michael Fink, the latter of whom successfully keeps the characters recognizably “human” while investing some of them with beastly characteristics. Oddly, a screen credit on the original “X-Men” noting the story’s and characters’ basis on Lee’s Marvel Comics series is nowhere to be found this time around.