Now that we've picked our way through the Mediocre Summer Fast Vehicle Movie ("Gone in Sixty Seconds"), the Ill-Advised Summer Remake ("Shaft"), the Summer Sci-Fi Dud ("Battlefield Earth") and the Not-Actually-Scary Scary Summer Movie (well, that's "What Lies Beneath," which comes out next week), it must be time for Lame-ass Superhero Tripe.
Not so fast.
With "X-Men" (IMDb listing), director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") reaches beyond the shallow, unsatisfying action movie with a cornball script and bad soundtrack that usually comes to mind when we hear the phrase "based on a popular comic book."
The film's plot is simple, but effective. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is a teenage girl with an unusual problem: She can't touch people. When she does, she absorbs that person's energy, knowledge and experiences. This makes for awkward dates.
After one such date, Rogue heads for middle-of-nowhere Canada in what can only be described as one of those bits of movie plot gee whizzery that seem OK in action movies but a big no-no everywhere else. Here, she meets up with another confused soul named Wolverine (his real name, turns out, is Logan). Wolverine's secret is that his body's tissue heals incredibly quickly. What's more, he has an indestructible metal frame, complete with retractable, razor-sharp claws, grafted onto his skeleton.
It's not long before Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue find themselves fighting alongside Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and the X-Men, his band of mutants. Mutants, Xavier explains in terms so simple you'd only hear them in an action movie, are born with superpowers that lie latent until puberty. When mutant kids hit adolescence, trouble occurs.
It's the self-appointed job of Xavier, the world's most powerful telepath, to find these mutants and train them at his mutant academy, which is cleverly disguised as a private boarding school. What's more, Xavier is embattled in something of a post-Cold War, good vs. evil battle that features a mutant-napping, recovery mission and a plan to turn prominent diplomats into mutants.
In much the same way the first "Batman" movie ushered in a new kind of gothic hero, "X-Men" offers up a villain fit for the modern age: the well-meaning anti-hero whose childhood trauma made him the way he is today.
This is not as hokey as it sounds. Unlike the baddies in superhero franchises like "Superman" and "Batman," concentration camp survivor Magneto (Ian McKellen, who earned his stripes at England's Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre) isn't out to destroy the X-Men. It's people he can't stand. He's had quite enough of the "normals'" mutant-phobiabest represented in the film by the McCarthy-ish Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison).
The movie hinges the conflict between former compatriots Xavier and Magneto. The latter has given up on humans. As a lifelong victim of discrimination (first in the Nazi death camps, now at the hands of fervent anti-mutant politicos), Magneto sees the destruction of humankind as the only solution to inequality and seeks usher in a new era of what he calls "homo superior." Xavier, however, holds out hope that people will eventually come around. In the meantime, it's his duty to protect them from Magneto. In a refreshing twist, neither man has any interest in destroying the other. It would be far more preferable to coerce him into the "right" way of thinking.
Pretty complex for a summer blockbuster.
The best parts of "X-Men's" plot center around this schism, largely due to the considerable talents of Stewart and McKellen. Maybe it's their British accents, but something about the conversation between Magneto and Xavier lets the audience know that this is an adult, gentlemanly feud.
But even gentlemen fight. And both Xavier and Magneto happen to have at their disposal some incredibly powerful mutants. As a result, we're treated to some incredible fight scenes, which are the film's bread and butter in ways a complex thing like plot could never be.
And it's quite tasteful, fun-to-watch violence. We're talking superheroes getting smacked around. We're talking a minimum of blood and a minimum of death. Occasionally, some average Joe stumbles into the middle of one of these fights and (tastefully) gets whacked, but by and large, watching the film's fight sequences is more like something out of a video game or maybe "WWF Smackdown!"
In one particularly well-done scene, Wolverine and the super-strong Sabretooth (played by real-life professional wrestler Tyler Mane) duke it out atop the Statue of Liberty. There's some high-flying, edge-of-your-seat choreography at work here, and even though we know Wolverine won't fall to his death, it's hard not to cringe as Sabretooth mercilessly pummels Wolverine, sending him to the precipice of oblivion, time and time again.
Yes, the movie looks great. And the acting isn't bad, either. There's not even any obvious pandering to the audience to create a No. 1 hit soundtrack. But there are several minor problems, and one major one.
Throughout the movie, we hear good and evil mutants alike decrying the discrimination inherent in the modern world. But they apparently aren't complaining to the right people because the film's casting director has grabbed all of the attractive young white actors money can buy. The teenage mutants at Dr. X's academy seem plucked from the same tree as the cast of "Saved By the Bell." The one black mutant in the film is played by the light-skinned Halle Berry, and while she gets plenty of screen time, she doesn't have many lines.
You could argue that Singer is trying to be subversive or ironic by making outcasts of attractive white people, but if he is, it's not apparent.
Less offensive are a few scenes' resemblence to ones we've seen in other movies. The most egregious of these occurs when Storm (Berry), whose special power involves an uncanny knack for manipulating the weather, uses strong winds to send one of Magneto's minions through a glass window. Watching this, it's pretty hard not to think of Darth Vader employing a similar trick against Luke Skywalker in "The Empire Strikes Back".
In an interesting twist, Storm's victim is played by Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in "The Phantom Menace".
Speaking of Park, whose character Toad is one of the film's more interesting mutants, we never really get to know him, or any other mutant not named Xavier, Magneto, Wolverine or Rogue. Naturally, the curious viewer might have a few questions.
For example, if badgirl Mystique can appear in any form she chooses, wouldn't she rather appear as Rebecca Romijn-Stamos than as a badly coifed, naked, blue Rebecca Romijn-Stamos? Surely there must be a reason for this Creature From the Black Lagoon/Smurf look, but if there is, Mystique ain't talkin'. Really, she hardly talks at all.
But maybe this is the film's saving grace. By putting the script largely in the capable hands of Stewart, McKellen, Jackman and Paquin (who won an Academy Award for her role in "The Piano"), Singer is playing keepaway from the likes of Famke Janssen ("House on Haunted Hill", "The Faculty") and James Marsden ("Disturbing Behavior") and playing to his cast's strengths. Stewart and McKellen, particularly, are to be lauded for their role in helping make this experimental weaving of plot and action so successful.
"X-Men" certainly won't go down as the movie of the year, but it just may end up the smartest action film in quite some time.
Filmfodder Grade: B+