Thursday, April 28, 2011

"X-Men," an average movie about special people

"X-Men" is, in the end, a thoroughly decent picture. It came out in 2000, as a fairly good fx effort given the technology at the time. Showing many fun, inventive, and clever touches throughout, it has some excellent actors. Best of all: above average plot and script for this genre - a gift from writer/director Bryan Singer.

But "X-Men" is the sort of movie I could have skipped. It somehow felt a bit flat, so don't confuse this for a "must-see." The problem, I think, is that it's simply too scattered. There was also an oddly-sedate tone, muting the onscreen fun. Just watch "X2" and move on to something else...

The problem, probably, lies in its blessing - Hugh Jackman as Logan, the picture's actual (and obvious) lead. The flick is all about him, and Jackman has more than enough skill and charisma to sell it. Also, I just love the way that BBC reviewer Mark Kermode calls him "Huge Action" (not in a mean way). Still, the producers chose to ride off Marvel Comic's big "X-Men" copyright, so it's weird to spend so much time on the "outsider," Wolverine.

What's worse: the haircut, or the effort needed to make that haircut?
The pic should be trying to establish a film franchise about a team of 5+ good mutants and their various enemies. This is hard to balance with the whole Logan-as-lead thing. The lack of focus on either element means that it’s neither as good as you'd like nor as good as it was trying to be.

Everybody has some weird or vaguely icky ability - as this comes in, it seems a bit like a children's cartoon. The impressive cast works against this: Stewart, Jackman, and Paquin are backed by Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, and Bruce Davison, Famke Janssen, Rebecca Romijn, James Marsden, Ray Park, and Mane.


But Berry is completely wasted. I like the idea of a fine-looking African woman with white hair and blue eyes who controls the weather. I like reading that the comic book character was worshiped as a living weather goddess. This is very interesting, and Berry can act her heart out. So why does she barely get to say anything? All the other people on the team are more talkative, and less interesting.

So is she nude, or is it... bad eczema?
At least Davison and Romijn establish and play their characters excellently. Bruce could do this role in his sleep yet doesn't phone it in. I wouldn't expect much from a lifelong supermodel, but Rebecca carries her part very nicely, as well as anyone else could (maybe not Streep...). Janssen and Marsden manage nice work with characters that are, sadly, pretty bland. Park and Mane seem capable of more - they're only on screen for 6 seconds at a time, often wordlessly.

Look at that cast. It’s no surprise, then, that 4 people get all the focus (Jackman, McKellen, Stewart, Paquin), 1 (Romijn) gets excellent support, and the rest get too little. Meanwhile, this movie has a lot to explain, in addition to actually introducing everyone. "X-Men" usually uses quick, often fine, dialogue, but there’s too much to do. Let’s see:

Erik Magnus (McKellen), is an "evil" man who controls magnetism. He's a Holocaust survivor who's sure that the US is going to treat his "other" minority the way 1930’s Germany treated his birth family. This focused genius, a force of will with unstoppable powers, wants to force mankind to make nice. Yet he favors plans that involve death, subversion, and explosions. It is never clear whether he wants to conquer the world, or just make it say "Uncle."

First I'll pull out your fillings; then, the piercings.
I must add: Erik goes by the name of "Magneto," and the British pronunciation of it makes me laugh every time ("Mag-neato..."). Then again, the UK pronunciation of "Xavier" does the same for me ("Eggsavior!"). Be ready, as both are used repeatedly.

Since I mention Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart): he sits on the other side of this classic light vs dark chess match. He's a wheelchair-bound telepath who runs a special school. In addition to an excellent education, he teaches young mutants to live with and control their abilities.

We don’t know why these genetic freaks have been popping up, but he’s doing what he can as a force for good. His oldest students are a crime-fighting team. Those kinda-bland but alright chaps have super-powers, a super-base, and even a super-jet. I know, it almost starts to sound a little superfi-

So, naturally, "Professor X" (not better, I know) was friends with Magneto, and of course now they fight over their differing views of whether mutants must live among or control humans. Still, Xavier never provides a good plan for what to do if one of the (let's say) high-school/college massacre nutjobs had the power to... melt bones with a scream. And even Erik doesn't mention what he'll do if some invisible mutant wants to assault the elderly, kill animals, or blow up a continent for fun. Odd.

The other half of his face is shadowed. It's symbolic.
This is fine, I guess, but Singer has to also include a quick host of students and Magneto's followers. And remember that the government is aware of, and trying to manage, these powerful beings. So we've got to learn about their side too.

There's nothing wrong with the over-arching story or any of its parts. But this makes for one very crowded picture, and Logan (aka Wolverine) is still the lead. He gets most of the time and development, so the studio should have started with Jackman’s solo flick. It's obvious, as the result was a diluted effort. Let me just describe the start of “X-Men,” and you'll see what I mean when I question 20th Century Fox and Bryan Singer.

Sadly, year 2000 lightning effects look cheesy.
At the start, we're in a lovely black-and-white scene - of people being marched into a concentration camp. One boy reaches out for his parents, and seems to be able to pull a metal gate with his mind. He's knocked out and carried away.

Then we're introduced to a near-future house in Mississippi. A girl kisses her boyfriend for the first time, and he collapses.

Now, we're in a Senate hearing on human genetic mutation and what to do with a growing population of mutants. A pretty redhead (Janssen) gives a speech favoring openness, calm, study, and cooperation. She is generally dismissed by a loud politician (Davison) and his tv-quote riddled, fierce grandstanding, "these ticking time bombs must be tracked and registered before they destroy the bibles of every...!" That's the first 9 minutes, but what follows is a different movie altogether.

Because really, it's all about a guy named Logan. Hugh Jackman is letter-perfect as the lead, the massively successful comic book favorite, “Wolverine”: a scruffy, rough-but-honorable Canadian "with no past." Hugh, a freakishly-talented individual, is extremely watchable, even if I'm suggesting you pass on this one... It helps that he's playing "the cool tough hero."

Logan is a loner, a rugged and clever amnesiac (soap opera, I know)... But he lacks direction, and he takes backwoods barroom cage match competitions for cash. He doesn't recall why he has horrible nightmares, metal-laced bones, or can heal a cut in seconds. He's a former soldier and a current wanderer.

I said, "Connery is the best Bond!"
So he sidles up to count his winnings and down a beer. He lights a cigar, and sees the TV (playing news for some reason). A US Senator (guess who?) wants to force anyone with "special abilities" to submit to a government registration. Logan's disgusted, and some young Mississippi girl at the counter looks uncomfortable. Then some sore losers try to get pay back, but instead are almost skewered by extending metal claws.

Logan doesn't know it, but a runaway who calls herself "Rogue" (Paquin) is about to push her way into his life. Having seen his fight, she can tell he's not normal. Rogue sneaks into the back of his mini-camper. He discovers her and kicks her out onto the road; but he changes his mind before he gets 20 feet away. Like any good anti-hero, Logan doesn't have to help someone who needs it, but he won't leave a kid out in the cold.

Rogue never breaks from her pushy stride. She starts asking him about his personal life, devouring the little food he has to offer. She even shares her own secret: anyone who touches her skin goes unconscious, and she remembers everything the other person knew. The poor girl can't control it, so she ran away.


So clearly we've got a delicate, action-laced bonding film - perhaps a road movie - about two people who don't know what they've become. Through trust and understanding, maybe they'll figure out why they're different - both from other people and from how they each used to be.

I predicted that as this emotional and unusual sci-fi film progressed, violence would hound Logan's life. It's PG-13, so I guessed he and Rogue would help each other. Maybe Logan would recover his memories, learn why he dreams of water tanks and horrible pain. Perhaps "Rogue" will develop control over (or remove) her lethal ability. Will these two learn to embrace what they are, or figure out how to have a "normal" life?

No. A 6'8" lion of a man (Tyler Mane) tries to murder them; he smashes the car with a massive tree. Strange people in vinyl outfits show up - one shoots a red laser from his eyes, and the other controls the weather. They drive off the bad guy - and Wolverine should've died twice. Watching him heal is cool, but you'll wince!

Where the hell did I leave that remote?
Then we’re in a world where Logan is standing in steely future-hallways or in a lovely mansion that hides those metal hallways. He's talking to a paraplegic Patrick Stewart, and sometimes the conversations are inside his head. Logan has lots to learn about who attacked them, where he is, who the X-Men are, and why this has all happened.

And, as I wrote before, everybody has some weird or vaguely icky ability, and now the movie will never be a super-powered "True Grit" or “Thelma & Louise” or even a friendly "Enemy Mine." The budding relationship between two messed up outcasts, this old healing guy and that young leeching girl, and where they're going - it's not developed enough to really make this film pay off.

It's especially odd, because this "help the wayward girl" plot is perfect for a superhero movie. Paquin is fine, and plays well off of Jackman. These reasons make the storyline work great for the Wolverine-first aspect of the pic, too. As for "X-Men" as a whole...

If Clint Eastwood and Ron Perlman raised a dancer.
Singer's more than skilled enough to use the Summer-Winter relationship as a thread, which the actors do carry. But the story began in a very interesting place with a few particular questions. Because this is a franchise (& because it's not Wolverine's "official" movie), those questions don't get much of an answer. I even have it from fans - Wolvie's backstory makes no sense, & Rogue can't touch people. It's all more angsty that way.

Similarly, the X-Men are just sort of there, if you follow me. It makes sense that they're introduced because of the Wolverine/Rogue storyline - after the intro, tho, they only service that plot. The team whose name takes up the title does one thing - fight their personal enemy, Erik (I can't write his codename again). In non-action terms, at least they educate young mutants and promote "mutant acceptance" through scientific and political events.

Do they have any other goals? What did they do last month? And what do the teammates want beyond a more peaceful society? Are they no more than a militant, semi-vigilante political group? Are they really peaceful revolutionaries? Does Storm get days off? Is she cooped up in that mansion all the time? Sure, Jackman's always a hit, and the actors handle each moment well, but this needs more depth.

I get wrecked, then do laser-light shows! See, my Ipod plugs in here...
What we get, on every front, isn't as interesting or as developed as it could have/should have been. This might have made two fun movies, and used the broad cast well. As one feature, there isn't enough time to tell Logan’s story while developing a good knowledge of and attachment to that whole title concept thing (y'know, those X-Men).

The visuals are nice. Some are pretty inspired, and the action is well-filmed, even if a few effects look rough now. The soundtrack, however, is seldom exciting. It makes me think of a lower budget version of the music to 1989's "Batman," actually. And the "X-Men" theme is kind of "a snore," really.

If you’ve read up to this point, you should understand why I wrote that this movie is skip-pable. It was a nice genre effort, and you might find it... decent. If there were letter grades here, I say it's between "B" and "C," depending on my mood and what I'm focusing on.

At least Singer’s first, slightly-clumsy entry in this “franchise” paved the way for the fan-freaking-tastic “X2.” I got this fitting closing note: the franchise having apparently died with the first film, 20th C. Fox just released a trailer for X-Men First Class today.

8 comments:

  1. I might have thought "Ray Park is underused" right up until I saw him in a real speaking part, in Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. Let me assure you: Ray Park is best seen, not heard.

    This movie also has a weird exposition gap, where the nature of Cyclops's ability ("can't control laser beam unless closes his eyes or wears a special visor") is never explained, although it's a plot point a number of times during the movie--including the climax. I could never figure out whether to credit Singer for believing the audience would just figure it out, or be annoyed that knowledge of the comic book was taken for granted (or, more likely, that a scene where Stewart gets to enunciate "his special vi-SOR" wound up on the cutting room floor).

    Still, at the time I don't think anyone had even attempted a team superhero movie--something which I think is leagues more difficult than doing a solo superhero film (with Avengers and Justice League films apparently on studio slates, we may get an illustration of just how easy this is to screw up very soon). Even though I agree with your criticisms, X-Men had such a potential for disaster I'd give it a solid B considering the degree of difficulty.

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  2. Thanks! I didn't know that about Ray - he uses his expressions well enough, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

    Very good point, too - it's clear that the guy can't control his eye-lasers, but it's never actually said. I suppose the head-gear (and Oakleys?) help suggest that he has a "special condition."

    You're right that it really could have been a mess. Also, that it was more of an accomplishment than I wrote - I simply put it down to an fx showcase.

    For me, there were already many movies with several powerful people - Batman 2 (I know, I know), Spiderman, Blade>. I never saw much difference between a movie with lots of super-powered people and a movie with a superhero team. When you assemble a cast like that, it should be easy to stick the landing. Then again, Uma and Connery in "The Avengers," right?

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  3. Very good review!

    The first two X Men films were big childhood favourites of mine for some reason, I must of watched them about a dozen times, but I don't know how they would hold up today.
    probably quite well considering how many other (considerably worse) comic book movies I've seen since then.
    I remember liking the second film a bit more though, and the third was an enormous disappointment, the large cast of this film is nothing compared to the mess of the third one!

    I'm still not sure what to think about the upcoming X Men film though, I suppose it's got a cool cast but it just doesn't intrigue me much...

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  4. In Ballistic, Park is the bad guy's enforcer. And, as we remember from him being Darth Maul, he's a badass martial artist, so that should fit, right? But the second he opens his mouth, he's got this really soft, delicate voice. I see he's had speaking parts since, but in my opinion, when I see "mute American ninja for GI Joe movie" I think "Hey! That'd be a great job for Ray Park!"

    If you think of those superhero movies with big casts, think how much time they spend setting up those characters? Usually, every hero and villain gets their own origin story. In the original Spider-Man, you have just two guys with powers, and it must take 30-40 minutes to establish who they are, what their motivations are, why they have powers, costumes, etc. Fantastic Four had five main characters (the four plus Doom) getting their powers from a single incident, and I'm pretty sure it takes more than half the film's run time before any sort of protagonist/antagonist conflict really starts. X-Men had twice as many superpowered characters (five X-Men, Prof. X, and four members of the Brotherhood). Potentially, you could be in for ten individual origin stories, plus two "how the team got together" stories to explain everything. Instead, Singer and his writers really streamlined it to just Magneto's backstory, sketched out origins for Rogue and Wolverine, and then the story spends the most of its remaining exposition time establishing the school and the team relationships (Jean Grey love triangle, Cyclops/Wolvie rivalry, Rogue/Wolvie father/daughter relationship, Storm standing in a corner with nothing to do), while letting a bunch of details (like the extended backstory between Wolverine and Sabretooth, Storm's origins, Toad's motivation for doing anything at all) slide.

    Now, both FF and X-Men are simpler team concepts than Avengers and Justice League. Both movies are sandboxed--the only people in the world with powers are the characters in the film, and there's only one mechanism for getting powers in each case. That's a lot easier to explain than a world where mythical/magical creatures (Wonder Woman/Thor) coexist with adventurer billionaires (Iron Man/Batman) and guys who got their powers by scientific accident (Hulk/Flash) and assorted others, including godlike aliens (Superman) and people from the distant past (Capt. America). That's a lot of freight before introducing new characters, or any villains.

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  5. Jack, I can absolutely understand how this and the 2nd were favorites. The 3rd film was so poorly reviewed (Brett Ratner?), I caught it for free off cable.

    Yet DJ reminded that this was the first big comic feature since the Donner's and Burton's comic series and this movie was doing a lot more than those were. No matter what, X-Men still gave us X-2, Iron Man, and probably Nolan's Batman, so it deserves credit.

    I did notice the above flaws when I saw this in the theater with my big bro, but I still had a good time. It was just less of a good time than if the film-makers had picked the right tone or direction, and it seems like they could've done that without too much trouble.

    The fairest thing to say is that X-Men isn't a "must see," and has a weird feel to it, especially if you're a bit older or are using your critical eye a lot...

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  6. DJ, Park's martial arts skills make a little more sense now, although Ballistic is probably the worst movie to judge actors by. I only have your word for it, but you made it sound torturous.

    Yes, Singer did a nifty job of deciding what was important and what wasn't. The coming comic book team movies sound nice and all, but I won't make any effort to catch them unless I'm out with friends.

    You're right that these sorts of movies sound incredibly ambitious, though, and I'm glad I'm not being asked to write a screenplay that has to tell a solid story about a crime-fighting super-powered task force comprising [let me see if I got this right]: a billionaire industrialist who fights crime in a metal suit, the earth-bound son of the actual god, Odin, a scientist who figured out how to control and manipulate ant abilities, a former carnival performer/reformed criminal who's a dead shot with an arrow, and a scientist who becomes a mindless green juggernaut when he's angry. I know I could take a good shot at writing an Avengers movie, but I think I could take a good shot at writing a lot of movies; I know I'd love the paycheck. But I understand that it's a pretty big job to get all that into an entertaining and well-told 2-hour story.

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  7. so i won't give the first xmen the time of day cause i thought it was awful. i agree with all your criticisms of the movie and more. it was hollywood garbage, although jackman was sure hot ;)
    however. i just came from a screening of the new xmen and i have to say that i loved it! so much that i came home and started reading to find out more of the story, leading me here. so i was originally thinking that i had to go back and watch the first xmen movie again to figure out how the entire story ends in detail but you did that for me. so.. thanks.

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  8. You're welcome. It's become a safe bet that reboots and franchise films will be mediocre at best, so I'm really glad to hear that XFC is actually good! Wait, that sounds like a food chain...

    Rebecca, I wish I could've saved you from watching X-Men the first time; at least I picked up the spare.

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