Friday, May 26, 2006

REVIEW: X-Men: The Last Stand

MINOR spoilers herein, NO I'm not going to tell you who dies.

Early on in "X-Men: The Last Stand" ("X3" from now on) we're treated to a large-scale action scene featuring a glimpse of a sight that X-Men (comic) fans could be forgiven for thinking they'd never actually see in live-action. Just a glimpse, mind you... and in a blurry, half-hidden-in-darkness, mostly-offscreen sort of way to boot... but, there it is. You're seeing it, one of the most out-there concepts of the four-color-page seamlessly integrated into the "reality" of the live-action X-movie universe. There it is.

And then, in an eyeblink, there it ain't: The whole scene vanishes in a puff of wireframe CGI, revealed as merely a hologram simulation taking place in the X-Men's "Danger Room" training facility. A whole (expensive-looking) scene tossed in and then tossed away once it's subject is neatly checked off the "stuff we didn't do yet" list. Producers to fans:
There. We gave it to ya. It didn't matter, and didn't mean a thing in the wider storyline, but THERE. Now shaddup, fanboys, we've got deadlines to meet and toys to sell.

And thus, the general tone for "X3" is set, right off the bat.

The film is frequently entertaining, occasionally even thrilling and competently crafted throughout. In spots, it even approaches brilliance. But that's the problem: It's all spots. The whole peice exists as a series of visuals, ideas and characters that have been hovering in the high numbers of "most-popular big stuff that happened in the comics" all mooshed together into an incohesive, overly-brief narrative more concerned with "getting it done" than "getting it done well." Among it's comic-book based brethren, it calls to mind no film as much as "Daredevil" in the way it falters trying to mix story-strands that may as well be oil and water.

First, we have our "A-Story": Wealthy scientist/industrialist Warren Worthington announces to the world that he has discovered a serum which can permanently neutralize the special powers of Mutants (people born with super-powers, for anyone who missed movies 1 and 2.) He calls it a "cure," which sets off a kind of ideological civil war among the "mutant community." All of them can agree that calling this a "cure" is by default calling their differences a "disease," yes... but not all of them disagree. Oh, and Worthington has a personal stake in all of this: His son Warren III is a mutant with big, feathery wings growing out of his back (X-Men nickname: "Angel," what else?) Oh, AND the source of the cure is a mutant, too: Leech, (Cameron Bright in his signature role of "sullen little boy persued by grownups,) who's aura acts as a kind of "signal scrambler" for mutation.

As is his modus-operandi when things like this go down, (like, say, in the movie right before this one, ahem!,) militant mutant rights activist Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan) whips the angriest of mutant-dom into a frenzy and renews his declaration of open war on humanity; this time with an army of disenfranchised young toughs at his disposal. The X-Men and their leader Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) assume their traditional roles as MLK to Magneto's Malcom X; trying to keep both sides from killing eachother. Fat chance.

Enter the "B-Story": Jean Grey, who bought it at the end of #2, comes back from the dead with scarily amped-up telekinetic powers and a malevolent alter-ego called "Pheonix." And here, I'm still surprised to say, things fall apart. Who could've guessed that the attempt to port over THE high water-mark storyline of THE high water-mark X-Men comics run, Chris Claremont's "Dark Pheonix Saga," would be the ultimate undoing of this film? But here it is, awkwardly shoe-horned into an already overcrowded plot, and it moslty plays out as a distraction. It feels like too big an idea with too little room to move around in, guest-appearing in this film when it ought to be in it's own.

That it's here at all is almost-entirely owing to the odd and unfortunate way that "X3" has come about: Wrested away from it's original writers and director, the new ones given the thankless task of finishing THIS plot thread because it was left open by their predecessors. Let's be realistic: As beloved as it is/was by fans, the "Pheonix" story was going to be a major challenge to fit into the framework of the X-films thus far. Trying to fit it in as a subplot is just plain daffy. What it all amounts to is a pair of impressively-unexpected deaths in the main cast, the X-universe equivalent of a "exorcist"-type story and a fairly lame excuse to even CALL this "Pheonix" dashed-off as a thudding chunk of exposition by Stewart. Much like the early action scene in the Danger Room, fans are granted an ultra-loose "sort of" glimpse that is ultimately bound to dissapoint most of them and leave non-fans in the audience perplexed as to why the main plot about cures and mutant-revolts needs to keep getting interupted by Famke Janssen getting her Linda Blair on. It's a valiant try, and a tragic miss.

There are, fortunately, more than enough bright spots in there among the mess: New director Bret Ratner's principal skills (action scenes and xeroxing film styles) are hard at work, so that the film's big action scenes all have pizazz and the "look" is a reasonable facsimile of the prior films. Fan worried about having another Joel Schumacher/"Batman Forever" on their hands can relax: You can ONLY make films as poor as Schumacher's Bat-sequels through a gross misapplication of personal vision and style, two elements which Ratner has yet to prove that he posesses. The FX, while very unfinished-looking in places (a result, doubtless, of the mad rush to get the film into theatres before "Superman Returns,") are think-big and genuinely cool for the most part, especially a flashback sequence where the now-infamous "digital airbrushing" technique uses CGI to render McKellan and Stewart realistically appear 20 years younger.

And the film DOES come alive, for awhile, once it reaches it's action-heavy third act. The two dueling plots STILL don't gel, but we finally get to see a giant-scale battle between the heroes and (literally) hundreds of super-powered bad guys, which is a whole lot of fun once you get past the fact that most of the enemy fodder look like the same guys in the same grungy club-kid attire in the wide shots. Oh, and you should probably just forget that the presence of Jean-as-Pheonix SHOULD render the entire shebang unecessary overall... hey, after all, the movie tends to forget all about her until it's logged the appropriate number of fights and money-shots :)

There are some more sundry bright spots: We get to see Iceman use his powers to full-extent, which is fun, and McKellan is afforded both scenes of real sympathy and real oh-you-bastard-ness to chew on for our (and obviously his own) enjoyment. Kelsey Grammer is note-perfect as the blue, well-spoken, fuzzy-wuzzy "Beast." And there are great super-power gags involving Kitty Pride (walks through walls) Colossus (metal skin) and Multiple Man (clones himself.) Fans are garaunteed a certain amount of fun with playing spot-the-mutant, as dozens upon dozens of possibly-familiar faces dash onscreen to pose for their action figure.

But there are also more problems that just keep cropping up: While the shrunken-and-rushed Pheonix-lite story is busy taking up space, the "main" plot sits around undeveloped and riddled with dangling threads. WHY does Worthington want to cure his son's mutation? WHERE exactly did they find this power-draining kid, again? The whole main story is hurting for a substantial heavy, and it doesn't have one. And Magneto won't work as one, because the good guys make their case for compromise so weakly that I'm inclined to side with "The Brotherhood" just for being more proactive (you can practically FEEL the charge that outspoken gay-rights activist McKellan seems to be getting out of playing the hardline-opposition to an attempt to "cure" people of difference they were born with.)

Problematically, the film is filled with surprising character turns and bold main-cast killings... but so little screen time is given and so rushed and disjointed in the pace that many don't have time to sink in. No sooner has one of the series' veterans bit the dust and/or lost their powers and "poof!," we're on to the very next scene. Compelling drama is undermined by a drive to keep the pace jumpy enough so as to nullify the lack of overall development; it has the effect of showing prospective buyers around a house REALLY fast, hoping that they won't notice that the work isn't all finished yet.

And then there's The Juggernaut. Oh, dear me... The Juggernaut. One of THE principal baddies of the X-Men comics, "Juggy" arrives onscreen in the personage of Vinnie Jones; his backstory apparently missing and his entire being altered. That much is to be expected, what could NOT have been expected is that Jones would be tasked with delivering one awful line after another, including (you'll know it when you hear it) what is not only the worst single one-liner in the entire "X-Men" series so far but ALSO the worst single one-liner in Ratner's entire filmography... and keep in mind that said filmography includes THREE films starring Chris Tucker!

And so here we are, "X3" has come and it's the least of the series. Moments of greatness swimming around in a mess of a movie. It seems that Fox REALLY does intend to end it here for awhile, and unfortunately with a "finale" like this they may not find a strong number of voices clamoring to have it back. The old turn of phrase about bangs and whimpers wasn't made for films like this, but it might as well have been.



Rob said...

In the end, I found X3 to be an enjoyable flick, but you're right about all your observations. The movie stands on extremely shaky ground. Before the movie I tried explaining to a friend why the Danger Room scene sucks, but he seemed to be sold on it simply because the scene contains three "fanboy" moments, even if the situation is totally drained of tension. Without a doubt, my favorite moment was the Iceman/Pyro duel, a moment I had been waiting for since the end of X2.

And if I'm thinking of the right line, the Juggernaut one liner you hate so much originates from an internet joke: clips of the animated series with kids dubbing over the voices, resulting in a very rude and nonsensical Juggernaut. If you didn't already know this, I'm sorry if I made you hate the movie more.

Bob said...

I was aware of the internet dubs enough to figure that that was where "I'm the Juggernaut, BITCH!" probably originated.

Just further proof, to my mind, of the degree of half-assedness with which this film approaches it's cameos and story-adaptations overall:

"Okay, there y'go. Movie-Juggernaut. Um... think they'll mind that we vetoed EVERYTHING that makes this character remotely different from a dozen other random bruisers we could've used?" "Nah! Just have him do one of those jokes from the internet and they'll be fine with it."

Reel Fanatic said...

Great review, though you clearly liked it more than I did ... I just thought there way too many mutants and unresolved .. and the geek within me just has to say that the way they abused the Dark Phoenix saga was inexcusable!