..

X2: X-MEN UNITED

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackson, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Alan Cumming, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Kelly Hu, James Marsden, Aaron Stanford
Director: Bryan Singer
Audio: English DTS or Dolby Surround Sound 5.1, Spanish or French 2-channel Surround
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: 20th-Century Fox
Features: See below
Length: 134 minutes
Release Date: November 25, 2003

"Do you really want to turn this into some kind of a war?"

Film *** 1/2

The year 2003 has been a fabulous one for movie adaptations of comic books.  First there was Daredevil, a violent, brooding but remarkably faithful rendition of Marvel Comics' blind super-hero.  There was also The Hulk, a highly anticipated but flawed film about Marvel's big, green behemoth; it substituted a poor script and CGI effects for the pathos and humanity of the original television show.  Then, there was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a divertingly entertaining if ultimately empty and unoriginal film.  But, the crown for the most critically and commercially successful comic book adaptation for 2003 belongs exclusively to one film - X2: X-Men United.

X2 is, of course, the sequel to X-Men, which arrived in theaters in 2000.  Both films are derived from the popular Uncanny X-Men, a long-running Marvel comic book.  In the comic, a secret team of super-powered mutants, led by the mysterious Professor X, is sworn to protect all of humanity, even those who would fear or loathe them.

The X-Men comic book was created in 1963, with an original line-up of Cyclops, Marvel Girl (or Jean Grey), Beast, Angel, and Iceman.  A dozen years and several reprint issues later, the X-Men were reincarnated, and the comic book, now entitled The Uncanny X-Men, featured a new lineup of Cyclops, Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, Sunfire, and Thunderbird (Professor X and Jean Grey remained as well).  This time, the line-up was composed with a more international flavor - Colossus was Russian, Storm came from Africa (and was also the first major female black super-heroine), Sunfire was Japanese, and Thunderbird was a Native American.  While some members of this line-up eventually departed (or died), the modern line-up of the X-men was now set.

Rogue and Nightcrawler, who both appear prominently in the film X2, did not actually join the X-Men in the comic books until much later.  In fact, Rogue was originally a villainess under Mystique's mentorship, while Nightcrawler was the son of you-know-who (hint: blue skin?).  While neither of these storylines is retained in the movies, X-Men fans will undoubtedly have fun comparing the similarities or differences between the movies and the comics.

In any event, enough fans, old and new, embraced the first X-Men film to make it a solid success.  X-Men was a super-hero film unlike any other in the genre - it was the first major one about a team of super-heroes rather than about an individual (let's just pretend the unfortunate Corman Fantastic Four film doesn't exist).  Wolverine may the most popular X-men character, both in the comics and in the films, but X-Men and its sequel X2 afford all the X-men a chance to display their powers as they cooperate to triumph over the bad guys.

X2 re-unites X-Men's director Bryan Singer with most of his cast from the first film.  Back once more in their on-going struggles for justice and equality are Cyclops (James Marsden), a man with laser vision eyes, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a developing telepath, Storm (Halle Berry), a woman able to control the weather, Rogue (Anna Paquin), a young girl with the ability to steal other mutants' abilities, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackson), a maverick with rapid regenerative abilities and a skeleton encased in an indestructible metal alloy.  Guiding them again is Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a very powerful but wheelchair-bound telepath.  Remnants of the previous film's antagonistic Brotherhood of Mutants are back as well - Magneto (Ian McKellen), a powerful mutant with control over all metals, and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), an alluring and mysterious doppelganger.  This time around, the lines between good and bad are muddled, and the alliances are altered; Professor Xavier's heroes may even find themselves relying upon their former nemeses to defeat the true villains in this sequel.

X2 picks up essentially where the first X-men film concluded.  There is little in the way of exposition to re-orient audiences, so first-time watchers are encouraged to watch X-men first.  Just to quickly recap though, in the first film, our friendly neighborhood super-heroes, based at Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Children (in actuality a school for young mutants), discovered a newly devised plan by Magneto that threatened to ignite the smoldering conflict between mankind and mutantkind.  The X-Men eventually stopped Magneto, but not before a U.S. senator was killed and secretly replaced by the shape-shifting Mystique.  The first film ended with Wolverine, the X-Men's newest recruit, journeying north to seek the truth about his unknown past.

As X2 opens, the repercussions of Magneto's attacks have resounded throughout the country.  A great deal of animosity has arisen over the bitter and fearful dispute about the mutant dilemma.  Events quickly take a sinister turn for the worse when an unknown mutant makes an assassination attempt upon the life of the President of the United States.  The President survives but consequently grants permission to the vehemently anti-mutant William Stryker (Brian Cox) to initiate retaliatory operations.

Stryker reveals his suspicions to the President that Professor Xavier's mysterious school is a base of operations for mutants.  Much of Stryker's information comes directly from Magneto, alive and imprisoned in a secret federal facility.  More ominously, Magneto has divulged his knowledge of the existence of Cerebro, a huge machine used by Professor Xavier to enhance his own psychic abilities and to keep track of all the mutants in the world.  This revelation proves to be an incredible opportunity for Stryker, for it presents a means by which to control, or exterminate, all of mutantkind.  Xavier's school thus becomes a military target.

The X-Men be may misunderstood and feared, but they are not actually malevolent.  Under Professor Xavier's guidance, they have always sought to find a beneficial way for all of humanity to co-exist peacefully.  Stryker's assault, coming in the middle of the night, catches Xavier's school essentially defenseless.  Jean Grey and Storm are away tracking down the enigmatic, would-be assassin, while Professor Xavier and Cyclops have left to visit Magneto in his prison to ascertain his role, if any, in the attack upon the President.  Only Wolverine, recently returned from his journeys, stands between the multiples of soldiers who descend upon the school and the frightened children under his ward.  Suffice it to say that a huge battle ensues, and the X-Men are scattered to the winds and captured or pursued remorselessly.  Eventually, the X-Men will re-unite and attempt to discover the true motivation behind the attack upon the President as well as the true mastermind behind that twisted plan.

X2 is a very worthy sequel to the original X-Men, and everything is bigger and better than before.  The story moves along at a fast pace, giving audiences less emphasis on lengthy exposition and more of the adrenaline rush they crave.  While I enjoyed the character development scenes of X-Men, the super-heroism of X2 will please many fans.  Plus, everyone loves the underdogs, and the X-Men are certainly that in this film.

The action in X2 are more explosive and more impressive than in X-Men.  All the X-men have dazzling fight sequences, with Nightcrawler's introduction being a particularly spectacular sequence.  Wolverine fans will undoubtedly cheer during the climactic fight between Wolverine and a deadly female assassin every bit his equal, while Mystique fans can watch her challenge an entire unit of heavily armed soldiers.

The X2 set designs are equally impressive, from the X-academy to the new and improved X-Jet interiors to the finale's dank and dark underground lair.  Even Bryan Singer, the director of both films, admits that X2 is much closer to his vision of an ideal X-Men film than was the original film.

For the most part, the new casting in X2 is quite good.  Alan Cumming is great as the insecure yet almost cuddly Nightcrawler.  Kelly Hu, despite having no lines of dialogue, makes a strong impression as Deathstrike, Wolverine's nemesis.  Michael Reid MacKay is also excellent in a dialogue-free and somewhat limiting role; I won't reveal the nature of his character here (it's fairly clear in the film), but his portrayal is very creepy and quite effective.  Aaron Stanford (previously seen in Tadpole) plays the conflicted and rebellious John (a.k.a. Pyro), a young mutant still searching for his true identity.  He is, as Magneto puts it, "a god among insects," and Stanford injects into his characterization of Pyro a quiet sense of poignancy that suggest his inner uncertainties and doubts.  Pyro is the X-Men's equivalence to Anakin Skywalker (but with much better acting), and it will be quite interesting to see how this character evolves in the next X-Men film.

Not all the cast members fare quite as well, though.  James Marsden is sadly underutilized again, with his character Cyclops getting relatively very little to do.  This is odd, considering that Cyclops is supposedly the X-Men team leader.  Plus, the cameo appearance of one of the X-Men characters (remember that huge metallic guy seen in the film's trailer?) is a bit dubious.  Doesn't the fact that there is an enormous, half-naked man (who appears at least in his mid-twenties and who could probably flatten Wolverine) running around at night in a school for children seem...disturbing to anyone?  Diehard fans of the X-Men comics will not be perturbed because they know about this character's background, but the casual viewer might find his heretofore unexplained and sudden appearance in the film to be unsettling.

The only really questionable casting choice, however, remains Halle Berry as Storm.  Aside from the obvious fact that her costume and hair are still all wrong (a production decision, not Berry's fault), she continues to display a poor grasp on her character.  Is this the same exotic Storm who in the comics was once worshipped in Africa as a goddess?  Surely not.  She's American now and wears a bad wig.  And, does anyone remember Berry's cringe-inducing delivery of the line, "Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning?  The same thing that happens to everything else" from X-Men?  That line did not make much sense, and thanks to her flat delivery, sounded fairly ridiculous.  Well, X2 is basically more of the same.  With all due apologies to Halle Berry fans (yes, she's ultra-gorgeous and yes, she's an Oscar winner), she is simply not the right actress for Storm.

X2 has a few other minor flaws, too.  The few character development scenes present in the film are dull at best and do little besides slow down the film.  Scenes revolving around the romantic conflict between Jean Grey and Wolverine or Cyclops feel somewhat contrived and would have benefited from some creative re-writing.  Also, the film's central theme of tolerance and co-existence is, at times, a little heavy-handed in its delivery.  It is not difficult to note an allegorical reference in this theme to real-life conflicts concerning race or homosexuality; the supplement disc even surprisingly suggests a religious subtext to the film!  However, there is little subtlety in the way this message is communicated to audiences.  The film could have achieved a much greater emotional resonance on these themes if it had trusted in the audience's intelligence and had tried a softer, less blatant approach.  There is a scene in which a parent, confronted with the sudden revelation that her child is different, asks, "honey, have you tried...not being a mutant?"  It is played for laughs, but at least the sequence does provide an intimate view of how the mutant dilemma is affecting the personal lives of our heroes.  Still, the scene has an air of superficiality to it and paints the mutant dilemma in such broad-based, black-and-white strokes that it is hard to take this supposedly domestic crisis in the film seriously.

The film's dénouement also feel somewhat forced.  The dialogue is not entirely polished (Singer even admits in the commentary track that he decided the outcome of the film very late in production and re-wrote some of the dialogue on the actual day of shooting).  Being familiar with the comic book, I completely understand the rationale behind the film's tragic finale, but I still feel it could have been presented in a more satisfying manner.  Anyway, the finale does suggest a highly probable path for X2's inevitable sequel (non-comic book readers may refer to the second commentary track for hints).

In the end, X2 is a summer film at heart, so we really cannot expect too much from it, other than the usual thrills and joyrides which this film more than adequately delivers.  If X2 isn't a fantastic film, it is at least an extremely entertaining one, and that is ultimately all that a blockbuster need aspire to be.  Don't get me wrong - I am a big fan of the first X-Men film and really liked X2 a lot, too.  Both films are among the best super-hero movies to date, and any criticism I direct towards X-Men or X2 is merely a former fanboy's enthusiastic desire for the films to be as great as possible.  Fans of the comic book will discover a lot to love about X2, and non-readers will also find this film to be two solid hours of action-packed excitement.  After years and years of playing a distant second fiddle in the movies to DC comics' superheroes, the Marvel heroes have finally arrived in a big way on the silver screen, and the X-Men are leading the vanguard.

Trivia Bonus - There are four unnamed X-men who make cameo appearances in the film.  Can you find them?  For a hint, glance over the cast list in the closing credits.

Video ****

X2 is presented in a widescreen anamorphic format, at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio.  It looks gorgeous.  The colors are vivid, from the lushness of the outdoor scenes, to the solid black levels of the night scenes (such as the attack on the school), to the sickly green hues of the villain's underground lair.  The print is also in pristine condition without a scratch or dust speck in sight.  The transfer is mildly soft but is otherwise impeccable without any glaring traces of compression artifacts, aliasing, or color bleeding.

Audio ****

X2 sports a wonderfully dynamic 5.1 DTS track as well as a fine 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track.  Both are equally superb.  There are plenty of explosives, shots, and loud sound effects to give the .1 sub-woofer channel a solid work-out.  Sound is spread out evenly to create a truly immersive listening experience, and dialogue is always crisp and clear.

For non-English speakers, French and Spanish tracks are also available, albeit in 2-channel surround.

Trivia Bonus - During the X-Jet dogfight sequence, that definitely is a woman's voice you hear ordering the X-Jet to descend.  X2 is actually the first American film to portray a female jet fighter pilot (or two, if you count Storm, who pilots the X-Jet).

Features ****

20th-Century Fox has given X2 a hero's treatment.  The movie arrives as a 2-disc DVD set.  The first disc contains the movie as well as two commentary tracks, while the second disc holds the bulk of the extra features, mostly featurettes that range from five to fifteen minutes in length.  These featurettes are also further divided into several arbitrary categories (pre-production, production, post-production, etc.).  I recommend that people look over the foldout inside the DVD case to see the complete list of features.  The foldout's list is arranged differently than on the DVD but will give you a general idea of what is offered.  Some of these extras are merely filler material, but there are enough worthwhile extras to make any X-Men fan happy.

On disc one, the first commentary is provided by director Bryan Singer and his cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel.  They are obviously good friends and have a great rapport.  A word of caution, though - do not take everything Singer and Sigel say at face value (as such, when Singer casually comments that the third X-Men film will be a musical featuring an X-line dance).  There are also some references to bloopers for the DVD, although I did not find an obvious blooper reel anywhere on either disc in this release.  The second commentary is by producers Lauren Donner and Ralph Winter as well as screenwriters Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and David Hayter.

The second disc starts with The Secret Origin of the X-Men, a discussion about the early history of the X-Men comic book.  Only the first X-Men movie is mentioned in this 15-minute featurette, so perhaps this extra is out of place on the X2 disc, but it is here, nonetheless.  Creator Stan Lee and fan favorite writer Chris Claremont are present to offer some words of super-hero wisdom.  It may surprise people to learn that the early X-Men comics were not initially very popular and at one point were even canceled.  The series survived in reprints until its rebirth in the mid-1970's.  Since then, the X-Men comics and graphic novels have been among the best sellers in the Marvel catalog.  Coincidentally, pristine original copies of the early X-Men comics are now worth hundreds of dollars.

Marvel Comics published a comic book about the Nightcrawler character at the time of X2's release in the theaters.  The next featurette, Nightcrawler Reborn, offers a summary of that comic book as well as a look at various artists' rendition of Nightcrawler.  The comic book follows the movie continuity, not the comic continuity, and so provides relevant background information about the events leading up to Nightcrawler's attack on the President in X2.

Nightcrawler Attack is a multi-angled look at the opening sequence for the film.  You can choose to view this sequence either as the computer cinematics version, as a rough cut with unfinished special effects, or as a side-by-side comparison between these choices and the completed film sequence.  Strangely, the Nightcrawler Stunt Rehearsal, offered elsewhere on the disc, essentially repeats the cinematics version again.

Evolution in the Details is a 18-minute tour of the largest sets for X2.  On-hand is production designer Guy Dyas, who guides us through the Xavier school set, the Cerebro set, the underground lair, the museum, Magneto's plastic prison, Nightcrawler's hideout (a real church), the White House, and finally the X-Jet.  All in all, there are a lot of interesting sights here, although the extremely soft focus of the video image makes this featurette occasionally difficult to watch.  Coincidentally, a few of the other featurettes also suffer from this fuzzy picture quality, too.

United Colors of X offers designer Louise Mingebach an opportunity to talk about the costumes in the film.  She comes across as cheerful, if slightly bubble-headed, but her enthusiasm for the film certainly cannot be denied.  I only wish this featurette had included more conceptual drawings or even costume tests as well.

For a cool rehearsal featurette, check out the Wolverine/Deathstrike Fight Rehearsal.  This is exactly as it sounds and even uses many of the same camera angles as in the final version.  It is fun to see Hugh Jackson and Kelly Hu out of costume while they beat each other up.

The Second Uncanny Issue of X-Men: the Ultimate Making-Of Documentary, at one hour in length, is the longest feature on the second disc.  It offers a little of everything, from interviews with Bryan Singer and his writers (it is amazing how young and high-school age these folks look!), to behind-the-scenes glances at some of the stunts, to words of whimsy from most of the principal actors.  Halle Berry does not appear in this documentary (or anywhere else on this disc, really) except in sporadic, non-interview clips, while James Marsden and Kelly Hu are both quite funny and chat away more than they do in the entire film!  Be sure to watch until the end of this documentary to see a funny outtake that answers the question of "will there be a third X-Men film?"

Next, we have Introducing the Incredible Nightcrawler, a character study into the mystery of this blue mutant.  It offers a history of Nightcrawler from the perspective of the comic books and then shows amusing clips of Alan Cumming practicing his moves in dressed rehearsals.

Cumming shows up again in Nightcrawler Time-Lapse, a quick overview that reveals, in a few minutes, the hours-long makeup ordeal by which Alan Cumming was transformed into the impish Nightcrawler.  It is very praise-worthy to see the amount of torture an actor will go through for the sake of his art.  Now, can we optimistically hope for a Mystique Time-Lapse on the next X-disc?

For the technically-oriented, there is FX2, a 25-minute feature on the various special effects in the film.  We'll get to see how many of the mutant powers (Cyclops' laser vision, Nightcrawler's teleportation, etc.) were created for the film.  Plus, there is a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the X-Jet dogfight sequence.  This feature concludes with impressive footage of the dam-breaking sequence.

Requiem for Mutants is an opportunity for the film's composer, John Ottman, to talk about the music of X2.  He discusses various themes for the movie, and we also get to watch the orchestra rehearsing or performing.  This downside of this featurette is again a soft picture quality that makes it somewhat difficult to watch.

Global Webcast Highlights is a series of short interview clips conducted live by video over the internet with Singer, his producers, and many of the main actors.  The most entertaining clip shows Hugh Jackson's embarrassed response to a question about a practical joke played on him during a vulnerable moment of filming.  Both commentary tracks mention the joke, so I will not give it away here, but it's a hoot (especially for the ladies)!

Next up are the Deleted Scenes, of which there are eleven in total.  Half of these scenes are merely extended versions (by a few seconds) of scenes already in the film.  The small changes may not be immediately obvious, although Singer does discuss some of the small differences in his commentary track.  The remaining scenes are true deleted scenes which expand upon existing sequences from X2 (the children at the museum, the camp site, the escape from the underground lair, etc.).  Most are incidental scenes which add nothing to the film, but they are still interesting to watch.

Now, we come to a truly enormous stills gallery, containing well over 600 entries.  It is divided into six separate sections - characters design (42 stills), locations and sets (315!), mutant x-rays (47), Nightcrawler circus posters (8), on-camera graphics (190), and the unseen X2 (54).  For a great laugh, check out one of the posters in Ronny's room to learn how to identify a mutant; you'll find this in the on-camera graphics section.  It's hilarious!  The unseen X2 section offers a tantalizing look at some concepts that did not make it into the final film, including an unused X-Men character (Angel), the school's Danger Room training facility, and a Sentinel, one of the powerful X-villains.  Perhaps these concepts will appear in a future film.  Coincidentally, some of the mutant x-rays show the Angel character, so check them out carefully, too!

Finally, there is the trailers section.  It contains three trailers, a public announcement, and a link to the Marvel website.  The first trailer is essentially an early teaser without any actual film footage.  The second trailer is more exciting and is accompanied by music from Holst's "The Planets Suite" (appropriately enough, "Mars"); I highly recommend this great symphonic piece to everyone!  The last trailer is the more conventional one which played in theaters and introduced many of the lead mutants by name.  The public announcement is an anti-drug message about the dangers of marijuana.  Lastly, the Marvel website offers three free comics to potentially interested readers.

Summary:

X2: X-Men United is without a doubt one of the most anticipated DVD releases of 2003, and 20th-Century Fox has certainly delivered the goods.  X2 looks and sounds fantastic, and the supplemental disc is generously loaded with extras.  There's no better place to start than with X2 if you want a fun and exciting super-hero yarn, so everyone, repeat after me - Make mine Marvel!