When we last left the X-Men, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) had ran off to find his past, and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden, who gets a little screwed here in the sequel with his small role), Storm (Halle Berry), and Rogue (Anna Paquin) had returned to their lives under the tutelage of Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Now a new threat has arisen to mutants everywhere, and his name is William Stryker (Brian Cox). A retired military general consumed with the desire to obliterate mutants, Stryker is using an alternate "Cerebro" machine to do his bidding, along with his dangerous assistant, Yuriko Oyama (Kelly Hu). Stryker also holds clues to Wolverine's origins, which forces the adamantium-clawed one to lead his fellow mutants into battle against the general, with help from new friends Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford), along with old enemies Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos).
The sheer force of filmmaking behind "X2" (IMDb listing) reminds me of similar continuing sagas, like "Aliens," or "The Empire Strikes Back." Those films took initial ideas that were considered artistically and commercially questionable by naysayers, built upon them with encouragement from rabid fans and bigger budgets, and shaped striking new installments in their respective franchises. Bryan Singer's "X2" is not only an improvement on the already marvelous original, but uses new opportunities to grow superior in story and character pathos, richer in special effects and character implementation, and deeper into the "X-Men" archives to show us new and future mutants that might come into play in potential installments. The word "sequel" doesn't apply much in "X2," and insinuates a cheapness and laziness that isn't found in the film. Singer has picked up where he left off with his 2000 original, and now, armed with a budget that fits the scope of his imagination, and a studio willing to let him roam freely in the mutant fields, he has roared back with the glorious "X2."
So what makes this new film an improvement? Well, it's more violent, intensely showcasing the threats the mutants can pose when backed into corners. Wolverine finally gets a chance to unleash during a mid-movie set piece where Stryker's men invade Xavier's Mutant School. We see the brute force of Wolverine's attacks, watching him run around the school stabbing and ripping his enemies to death. Of course, this is dark material (which twists the PG-13 rating a bit for the little ones), but Singer doesn't shy away from Wolvie's more animal instincts, and the sequence is spectacular. "X2" also takes greater care of its heart, as Singer develops the Jean Grey/Wolverine/Cyclops romantic triangle a little more deeply. He also spends time with the Rogue/Iceman courtship, which has heartbreak written all over it, and I can't wait to see how Singer expands it further. Because of budget constraints on the first film, we didn't get to see too much of the mutant powers either. This is all changed in "X2," with Singer giving generous opportunity to each mutant to show off a little ability, all the while retaining that important human element.
The running time has also been fattened ("X1" clocked in at 100 minutes, "X2" is 135), which permits a more epic tone for the film, often approaching Shakespearian-levels of tragedy and passion. Singer takes great care in retaining a realism to this saga so it isn't all special effects and noise. Coming from his character-oriented directorial upbringing ("The Usual Suspects"), Singer is almost the star of the show the way he conducts these films. Faced with the daunting task of making a large-scale film for the summer season and the fans, he complies with a story, performances, and overall scope that is wider, not taller. This isn't bloated the way most sequels can get, this is simply bigger and more impressive in all the right places.
Behind the scenes, another crucial element has been changed. Replacing composer Michael Kamen from the first "X-Men" is Singer regular John Ottman. I always felt Kamen was the wet blanket on "X1," composing a tuneless score that actually hurt the narrative rather than underscoring it. Ottman, in repairing the damage done with Kamen's score, creates music that's a little more appropriate in tone, reaching for the heroic heights Kamen was afraid to go after. There is no defining theme to the "X" saga, which usually makes a comic book series so much better, but Ottman's score is a massive improvement, and that's all I'm asking for.
"X-Men" started this realism wave in comic book adaptations three years ago, and gave birth to a new revolution in integrity. Things slipped a little bit recently with "Bulletproof Monk," but here's "X2" to remind Hollywood that treating these comics with care is the only route to take,
There's more gold in those mutant hills. Probably enough to feed many future installments to come.
Filmfodder Grade: A