X2: X-Men United (2003) / Action-Sci-Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, some sexuality, and brief language
Running Time: 133 min.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Brian Cox, Patrick Stewart, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Famke Janssen, Alan Cumming
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Daniel P. Harris, Michael Dougherty, Bryan Singer
X2 is probably going to be the dividing point between the fans of the comic book and those that are just along for the ride. If you're a fan, (and I am a passive fan, i.e. not hardcore), you will relish the in-jokes, cameo appearances, characters who will flourish in the future, and an ending that sets up the next entry with what was perhaps the most famous storylines in the X-Men comic book series, The Dark Phoenix Saga (Don't look this up, unless you want possible spoilers for the next movie.) If you're not a fan, this one may be a little too much to digest fully, and even if you like many of the little scenes and squabbles, the big picture is going to be a bit murky without an understanding of much of the pre-established X-Men mythos, but luckily, not so much that you won't have an entertaining time.
Still, this presents a dilemma for me, the reviewer, as to how much I should recommend X2 to those who aren't avid fans, and I would gather that you can guess from the amount of stars I give it what my answer is. The first X-Men film was a hasty affair, with a somewhat scant storyline, feeling more like a rough draft than a workable action flick, slapped together and rushed to the theater for summer movie blockbuster consumption. This is definitely not the case with this sequel, because if there is any weakness to the film, it's that it perhaps tries to incorporate too much and goes on too long. Still, it is definitely smooth sailing most of the way, with a great plot, good development of side stories, and an intelligence which will give even those that think comic books are just for kids a moment to pause and re-evaluate their positions.
Even if you aren't a lifelong reader of the series, it is highly recommended that you watch the first film before seeing this, as it continues directly where it left off. X2 starts with an introduction to the first new mutant to join the fray, Nightcrawler (Cumming, The Anniversary Party), who makes an assassination attempt on the President of the United States, almost succeeding. This ramps up the anti-mutant sentiment among the general populace, who already see them as the scourge of the Earth and a danger to the future of humanity. Enemies abound, but one is clearly the most potent yet, crafty military leader William Stryker (Cox, 25th Hour), renowned for his own experimentations on mutants in days gone by. His quest is for the eradication of all mutants, and knows there is a shot if he can coerce Professor X (Stewart, Star Trek: Nemesis) to use his powerful telepathic control device, Cerebro, to snuff them out. Things won't be easy for Stryker, as he not only must battle the X-Men, but he has stirred up homo-superior proponent Magneto (McKellen, The Two Towers) to join in the opposition, but with a seemingly fool-proof plan and the world on his side, he still just might succeed.
X2 is a rarity among sequels, and in particular, comic book hero sequels, because it is actually significantly better than the first film in the series. However, the X-Men series has always seemed to me a bit more of a franchise in the mold of Star Trek than Batman or Superman because of the many characters, a wealth of history, and an episodic style that will cast the heroes in a different peril while still developing new story threads to tie it all together. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was also a sequel that superseded its modest beginnings, and if you know the ending of X2 and Star Trek II, you should also feel there's more than a passing familiarity in their respective endings, and how they position themselves for the third film.
The special effects have definitely improved, which isn't surprising since the budget had risen dramatically, but unlike your typical special effects bonanzas, this one doesn't use them at the expense of the story. X2 is very heavy on plot, an ambitious and somewhat twisty affair that may be somewhat hard to follow for some, particular for the youngest of fans. Perhaps the greatest facet of the film is that it didn't try to do what most big-budget blockbusters typically do, dumb down the plot so everyone can understand it, and if you consider that the fan base for this movie is predominantly young, you can see that going against the conventional wisdom to try to make quality instead of the fast and easy buck is worthy of applause and admiration.
X2 delivers on action, memorable fighting, colorful characters, glorious special effects, and dastardly good villainy. In short, it delivers everything you could want in a comic book action flick. Like its print counterpart, there is a good deal of campiness to the affair, and one-dimensionality to many of the characters, sufficiently so that there will probably never be a truly great film in this series. However, there can still be moments that approach greatness, and X2 definitely has its share of these, enough to get a solid recommendation. Fans will definitely be ecstatic in awaiting the inevitable sequel, because if the film to follow can adequately capture the essence of the storyline as presented in the comic saga from which it is inspired, they know that the best is yet to come.
-- Followed by X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006.
©2003 Vince Leo