X-2: X-Men United

A friend of mine sent me an IM near the end of the workday, inviting me over to his place to drink instant coffee, bitch about the IT industry and watch movies. It being Friday and me having no social life to speak of, I agreed. He slyly revealed that he had downloaded a pirated VCD of X2 a full 24 hours prior to its US release. Gotta love the Chinese and broadband. I was reluctant to watch it, since I’ve been looking forward to this movie for two years and didn’t want the experience to be ruined by blurry, shaky camcorder pirate cinematography and the occasional sillhouette of a Hong Kong teenager heading for the restroom. But aside from poorish sound quality and one segment when the film was out of focus, it was a pretty good copy. After the first 10 minutes I had even tuned out the Cantonese subtitles. Read on for my review of the actual movie.

X-Men 2 takes place a short period after the events of the first film, which is prerequisite viewing before seeing the sequel. The general public remains fearful and intolerant of mutantkind, but the Mutant Registration Act was quashed at the end of the previous film, so life attempts to return to normal for our heroes, who can put aside their bondage-gear uniforms and return to their dayjobs as schoolteachers. Until a mutant attempts to assassinate the president by teleporting into the Oval Office. Now the trouble starts all over again. There’s a new movement to nip this “mutant problem” in the bud, led by a smarmy military scientist called General William Stryker, well-played by the hard-working and usually underrated Brian Cox. Stryker has evidence of a secret mutant terrorist base in upstate New York, cleverly disguised as a prep school… and after the assassination attempt, the president approves a military operation to capture the school and keep them from picking on the Normals.

Jean Grey and Storm go off to Boston to find the teleporting mutant (who turns out to be Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner, portrayed by Alan Cumming under all that blue paint,) whom Professor X has tracked down using Cerebro, while the Professor himself is escorted by Cyclops to visit Magneto in his plastic prison and find out if he was behind the assassination. The school is left undefended, except for a certain irritable fellow with claws who has recently returned from a trip to Canada to find himself. Stryker’s team invades the school, but some of the students manage to escape with Wolvie’s help, namely Rogue, Iceman and Pyro. (During the invasion sequence Colossus makes a cameo in full organic metal glory, and Shadowcat and Siryn also make unnamed appearances.)

So now the X-Men are scattered in various New England states, and Stryker’s plan comes together. See, it turns out General Stryker has been messing with mutants for quite some time and he has a personal vendetta against Charles Xavier. He leads the president to believe that he merely wants to put down a terrorist organization, but his real plot is to wipe out all of mutantkind. Of course, when the X-Men learn of this they must put a stop to his diabolical schemes. And Magneto, ever the militant mutant-rights activist, must stop it as well. Much excitement ensues, and I’m ending the synopsis here lest I reveal any spoilers.

As with the first X-Men film, this one does a very good job of capturing the essence of the characters from the comics while still being original, thus pleasing the fanboys without alienating the uninitiated. You can enjoy this movie even if you never read any of the comics, but you’ll enjoy it even more if you did. (I was never a big X-fan, as Spidey and the Punisher were my personal favorites. But it was impossible to read any Marvel titles during the 80s and 90s without being aware of what was happening in the X titles.)

With such an ensemble cast, it’s difficult to fully develop all the characters, and X1 focused mainly on Wolverine and Rogue. Wolvie is again rather central to the plot of this film, but this time around he’s beginning to act like a part of the team. The subtitle of the film is “X-Men United,” which seems somewhat contradictory since the team is separated for most of the story, but there is definitely a running theme of teamwork and family, pulling together and believing in your friends. As the X-Men reassemble to find Stryker and rescue the captured Xavier, they even form a tense alliance with Magneto, working together against a common foe. Rest assured, Magneto has not gone soft, and Ian McKellen brings a great amount of class and subtlety to the classic villain.

The action is well-staged and creative, the effects are seamless, the casting is spot-on and the performances are all excellent, even Halle Berry manages to be interesting for a change. A third X-film is certainly on the horizon, and this second film contains subtle hints toward upcoming events, clues especially strong to those familiar with the comics.

Clearly, I liked it. Speaking as a movie snob, it’s not Oscar material but it’s a very well-done summer action sci-fi superhero popcorn flick requiring minimal suspension of disbelief. Speaking as a Marvel comics fan, I can hardly wait for #3.