"X2" is 2 good 2 be 4-gotten. Brisk and involving with a streamlined forward propulsion, it's the kind of superhero movie we want if we have to have superhero movies at all.
"X2: X-Men United" is also an improvement over the initial "X-Men" venture, yet, paradoxically, it wouldn't be as satisfying as it is if that first one hadn't existed. Director Bryan Singer, the key members of his production team and no fewer than nine stars and the genetic mutants they portray return from the 2000 original, and all benefit from having the previous effort behind them.
If the first "X-Men" had an obstacle it never completely overcame, it was the time-consuming necessity of introducing the numerous inhabitants of its elaborate world of mutants, each with a very specific power, from the ability of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to fight like the devil and heal himself to the way Storm (Halle Berry) can control the weather.
Overlying this was a free-floating anxiety about whether the result would compel an audience or end up a phlegmatic lox of the "Daredevil" variety, monumental sums of money expended notwithstanding. All of which made for a film which, though certainly more than acceptable, was too preoccupied to really get untracked.
Still, just having gotten it done at all seems to have put everyone involved in "X2" understandably more at ease, more confident and relaxed. Without those pressures, the film was free to, in a sense, take itself for granted, to concentrate on coming up with an involving story and telling it in the best possible way.
Though it was put together by a heaping handful of screenwriters (written by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris and David Hayter from a story by Zak Penn, Hayter & director Singer), one of the virtues of "X2" is that its storytelling style is basically matter of fact. "X2" doesn't wink at us and doesn't get overly stylized. Its shrewd concern is to make the world its unreal characters share with us ordinary humans as realistic as possible. As director of photography Newton Thomas Sigel told American Cinematographer, "In many ways, I think we're trying to make films that are closer to 'Road to Perdition' than, say, 'Gone in 60 Seconds.' "
Even more remarkable, "X2" doesn't trip over its own logistics, even though those logistics were formidable. Shot largely in Vancouver, "X2" was the biggest movie ever made in Canada, complete with more than 60 miles of electrical cable running through a key soundstage and hours in makeup for returning shape-shifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and debuting teleporter Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming).
But despite this, "X2" really wants to involve us in its characters' stories, to get us on its side and create belief that there is something tangible at stake in what these mutants are up to. Don't be misled, we're not talking "The Hours" here, but for a superhero movie, it's well above average. And this despite the fact that at two hours and 13 minutes, "X2" goes on longer than it should.
Like "Spider-Man," which also began life as a Marvel comic, "X2" mines the romantic conflicts and insecurities of adolescents and those who act like them for much of its emotion. Will the telepathic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) be able to choose between bad boy Wolverine and the clean-cut Cyclops (James Marsden)? How will young Rogue (Anna Paquin) resolve the fire-and-frost conflict between Pyro ("Tadpole's" Aaron Stanford) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore)? And will any of these people be able to take a break from sorting out their raging hormones to help save the world?
"X2" opens where "X-Men" left off, with the evil metal-controlling mutant Magneto (Ian McKellen) encased in a plastic prison and kindly Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the world's most powerful telepath, back running Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, where youthful mutants learn how to live with their gifts.
Magneto and Xavier, you'll remember (or else I'll remind you), had a philosophical disagreement that turned quite violent about the relationship mutants and humans should have on the planet.
Xavier, rather like the U.N.'s Kofi Annan, thinks everyone should get along as equals, while Magneto, borrowing a page from some in Washington, thinks because mutants are stronger and smarter than anyone else it makes perfect sense that they rule the world.
This internecine conflict, however, is forced to temporarily take a backseat because of the threat to all mutants presented by Col. Stryker, a seriously wealthy military man who wants to do to mutants what Magneto wants to do to humans.
Events conspire to give the colonel the ear of the president, and suddenly all the world's mutants face a threat the like of which they've never seen before. Really.
Though he is something like eighth-billed, "X2's" secret weapon and most persuasive performance comes from Brian Cox as the evil Stryker. This will not surprise anyone who's seen Cox's unforgettable work as the original Hannibal Lecter in "Manhunter" or as Big John, the child molester with a heart of gold in "L.I.E." One of the best and least appreciated of today's film actors, Cox has a powerfully convincing way with under-your-skin evil.
Actually, the acting in "X2" is better than average for this kind of movie, with Jackman being especially effective as the muscular, tortured Wolverine, who finds out more about his past and gets to battle the equally fierce Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) in the film's action centerpiece.
One of the unexpected aspects of "X2" is the way its concerns seem to be uncannily relevant today, starting with an opening observation that "sharing the world has never been humanity's defining attribute." And the central theme of both the film and the comic -- how relentlessly suspicious we are of those who are different -- has equal resonance just now. "X2" might not be the place you'd think to look for any kind of message, but there you are.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action and violence, some sexuality and brief language.
Times guidelines: Comic book violence, some of it fairly intense; highly suggestive costumes
Patrick Stewart...Professor Charles Xavier
Famke Janssen...Jean Grey
Brian Cox...William Stryker
In association with Marvel Enterprises Inc, a the Donners' Co./Bad Hat Harr Production production, released by Twentieth Century Fox. Director Bryan Singer. Producers Lauren Shuler Donner, Ralph Winter. Executive producers Avi Arad, Stan Lee, Tom DeSanto, Bryan Singer. Screenplay Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris and David Hayter, story by Zak Penn and David Hayter & Bryan Singer. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. Editor John Ottman. Costumes Louise Mingenbach. Music John Ottman. Production design Guy Hendrix Dyas. Art director Helen Jarvis. Set decorator Elizabeth Wilcox. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes.
In general release.