3 stars (out of 4)
Sometimes sequels really do improve on the originals. "The Godfather Part II" had more historical and psychological heft than "The Godfather." "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" had more spectacle and pizzazz (but not more suspense) than "The Terminator." And "X2: X-Men United" is a much better movie than its 2000 predecessor.
The new movie, based once again on the Marvel Comics tales of heroic, mutant superheroes and supervillains, not only maintains the franchise but gets right much of what the first movie - a popular but roaringly vacuous special-effects extravaganza - tended to botch. This time, the unusually good "X-Men" cast members (Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart) don't seem to be wasting their talents while spouting cliches and cavorting in campy outfits. And gifted director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") seems to be having fun with the material instead of being overwhelmed with special effects. This movie lets the characters and tropes borrowed from the original Stan Lee comic live and breathe.
It's not a wholesale change, just an upkick in quality and smarts. As before, "X2" is the tale of a group of superhero mutants with wild talents - Jackman as sharp-clawed Logan, a.k.a. "Wolverine"; Stewart as wheelchair-bound paterfamilias Dr. Charles ("X") Xavier/Cerebro; Famke Janssen as noble Jean Grey; Anna Paquin as reluctant Rogue - and the hassles they got from rival mutant superbaddies Eric Langsherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) and the devastating Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as blue, scaly super-chameleon Mystique.
The story is pretty much the same as before, and as always for this type of movie or graphic novel. The bad supervillains put the world and our superheroes in a perilous fix, but the forces of good fight back and blast through. (Am I giving away too much?) It's a very familiar story, fodder for hundreds of movies and for thousands, maybe millions, of comics. But this time the script, by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris (working from a story by Singer and Hayter), has more bite, zest and snap. The settings, which include the White House and a vast dam laced with tunnels and underground chambers, are more portentous or evocative.
While the first movie lacked the perverse confidence and impudent razzle-dazzle of Singer's "Usual Suspects" (as well as the lightness, wit, personality and magic that movies like this can always use), "X2" redresses the balance. It's fun and exciting. You can watch it without flinching. Back are all the actors who helped make a hit of "X-Men," and there are some stellar additions, notably Alan Cumming as the living gargoyle Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler and Brian Cox in a superb bit of business-as-usual arch-villainy as William Stryker, a vengeful human scientist who wants to rid the world of all mutants and has kidnapped both Stewart's Cerebro and McKellen's Magneto to do it.
The original cast had qualities that eventually triumphed over a really bad script in the first "X-Men." Jackman's squinting, Eastwood-esque surliness balanced against the elegant Brit savoir-faire of Stewart and McKellen, the youthful empathy of Paquin and the va-va-voom pulchritude of triple knockouts Berry, Janssen and Romijn-Stamos. But Cox is this movie's X-factor. One of the best and most magnetic heavies in modern movies - he originated the part of Hannibal Lecter in 1986's "Manhunter" and almost matched his successor, Anthony Hopkins - Cox gives "X2" a nasty shiver of menace and pinions us with his hulking grace, dry threats and dolorous eyes. As head of the forces of bigotry (which also include Bruce Davison's close-minded Senator Kelly), he's so bad that he makes McKellen and Romijn-Stamos temporarily look good. He also has an attractively evil new sidekick, Yurika Oyama/Deathstrike, played by Kelly Hu.
Like last year's Marvel Comics movie behemoth, "Spider-Man," "X2" fills its blockbuster parameters and also has a good time with them. There are big explosive set pieces, of course, notably a spectacular escape scene with Magneto and Mystique and a pulverizing Hong Kong-style duel to the death between Wolverine and Deathstrike. But "X2" also has the dramatic glue to hold everything together. It may not surprise us much, but it doesn't exasperate us either - as long as you have the barest tolerance for this kind of story, which millions do.
At the heart of the story is the notion that society persecutes its outsiders, mavericks, wild talents and even dissidents at its own peril - that it's better to understand than to annihilate. That's a simple message, and one that forms the core of most of the super-mutant sci-fi tales (from "Odd John" to "Slan" to "More Than Human"). But it's more resonant here than it was in "X-Men." There's some feeling here, especially in the last scene with Jean Grey. The movie, in defiance of all our expectations, achieves a little feeling amid its sturm und drang. I liked Stewart and McKellen more this time, and I liked Jackman about the same. Berry and Romijn-Stamos managed to seem even more provocative than usual. Cox, radiating pure hatred and tight-focussed malice, puts more conviction into the battles, more blood in the movie's mouth. "X2" has an emotion the first film lacked, and, sometimes, the full-blooded intensity that the best pop myths tend to tap.
Singer's earlier movies (even his failed 1998 Stephen King adaptation "Apt Pupil") all had intelligence and ambition, which is why it was such a disappointment when his first "X-Men " seemed so strangled by its blockbuster conventions and comic book parameters. Trying to make a big, popular movie with something extra, he seemed to get too nervous; his wit dried up. There was an airless, overstretched quality to his filmmaking. Here, with the same cast and excellent additions like Cox and Cumming, he seems more comfortable, easier on the trigger. So does his usual editor and composer, John Ottman, who imparts cool tension in his cutting and surging romanticism to his music.
I wouldn't make any stronger claim for this movie, or for Singer and company, than that it's a good blockbuster-style fantasy and they all do their jobs well. But considering the scale and pitfalls of the job, and the huge flaws of the first "X-Men," that's saying something. Sometimes, the second time around really is worth the trip.
"X2: X-Men United"
Directed by Bryan Singer; written by Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris; photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel; music and editing by John Ottman; production designed by Guy Hendrix Dyas; visual effects supervised by Michael Fink; produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Ralph Winter. A 20th Century Fox release; opens Friday, May 2. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence and some sensuality).
Professor Charles Xavier - Patrick Stewart
Logan/Wolverine - Hugh Jackman
Eric Lensherr/Magneto - Ian McKellen
Storm - Halle Berry
Jean Grey - Famke Janssen
Scott Summers/Cyclops - James Marsden
William Stryker - Brian Cox
Mystique - Rebecca Romijn-Stamos
Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler - Alan Cumming
Rogue - Anna Paquin