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X-MEN 5.1

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, Bruce Davison, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Ray Park
Director:  Bryan Singer
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  See Review
Length:  104 Minutes
Release Date:  February 11, 2003

"What are you looking for?"

"I'm looking for hope."

"I will BRING you hope, old friend..."

Film ***1/2

I've never been a comic book kind of guy (I collected baseball cards instead), so this past summer, I went in to X-Men with only a slight, roundabout knowledge of the characters and the storyline.  As such, I can't speak for how well the film translates the comic, but I CAN review the film under its own merits, and I found it a fun, exciting, and engrossing movie all around.  Here was an action picture that not only delivered the action, but a tremendous and distinctive visual look as well, and even more, one that gave its characters the room and space to breathe and develop before our eyes.

Without the attention paid to some of their individual stories, X-Men could have been just another pretty-but-empty summer flick; the kind that seem to roll off the assembly line from Hollywood in droves year after year.  But something better is at work here:  the story tells the tale of the next stage in human evolution and those who would be victimized by it.  Though changes usually take place over thousands of years, we are told, occasionally the evolutionary process takes an unexpected leap forward.  There are humans being born with strange powers and abilities.  We are told that among those documented include one who could walk through walls and another who can control minds.  These people are unceremoniously labeled ‘mutants', and, much like the McCarthy era gone by, a paranoid movement is underway in Washington to force the mutants to register their presence with the government for easier containment.

And the story evolves from that premise into a battle of wills and ideals between two of the most powerful mutants.  Professor Xavier (Stewart), a wheelchair bound scientist with the aforementioned power to read and control minds, believes that mutants can extend the proverbial olive branch to the rest of humanity:  by using their strange abilities for good, they can demonstrate to the world that irrational and unchecked fear of mutants is unwarranted.  The history of the world wouldn't seem to back his idealism, but the man is determined to try:  he runs a special school for the “gifted”, which helps young mutants to understand and develop their abilities, as well as give them refuge from the prying eyes of the world and a place where they don't feel outcast.  Some of his top students have joined his special team, the X-Men, a group dedicated to the good of all humanity, mutants and non-mutants alike.  Some of his team members include Cyclops (Marsden), a man with powerful rays emitting from his eyes and a special visor to contain and control them, Storm (Berry), a woman with the power to control the weather, and Jean Grey (Janssen), a doctor with abilities developing along Xavier's lines.

His opposition is a mutant who calls himself Magneto (McKellan).  In the stunning opening set piece, we see him as a child in a concentration camp in WWII Germany.  As his parents are being stripped from him, he screams and cries and struggles against the guards who hold him, and the camp's giant iron gates become ripped apart by the force of his power.  It's a powerful sequence that conveys in a few striking images everything we need to know about the man, and why his ideals are the polar opposite of Professor Xavier's.  Magneto has seen the ugliness of intolerance up close, and recognized the world as one that will eagerly destroy you just for being born the way you are.  He too has a special team of renegade mutants, including Mystique (Romijn-Stamos), a shape shifter, and Toad (Park, of Darth Maul fame) as a wall climbing mutant with a whip-like tongue.  This team is dedicated to the preservation of and domination by the mutant race.  “Humanity is evolving,” Xavier tells Magneto.  “Into us,” he replies.

In the flux of this story come our two central characters:  Rogue (Paquin) is a teenage girl who, like most mutants, has found her powers emerging with puberty.  Through physical contact, she can draw on another person's energies and abilities, but the process can prove harmful and even fateful to those she touches.  She runs away from home and seems forced to reside in a world with no physical contact.

She meets up with Logan (Jackman), also called Wolverine.  He is a mutant with an amazing ability to heal quickly, and has a strange metallic skeleton that gets explained over the course of the film.  Like Rogue, he is forced to live a lonely existence.  She marvels at the metal spikes that shoot forth from his knuckles when he fights, giving him an incredible weapon.  “Does it hurt when they come out?” she asks.  “Every time,” he replies soberly.  Hugh Jackman is a real discovery…his performance reminded me of Clint Eastwood in his younger days.  He adds even more depth to Wolverine merely on the strength of his fully realized performance, which is one of the year's most memorable.

It turns out Magneto needs Rogue for his master scheme, but when the X Men protect the two travelers from his vile team, both end up in the care of Professor Xavier.  There, he begins to try to reach the suspicious and angry Wolverine, as well as protect and care for young Rogue.  By the time the story is over, much will be learned, and an eye-popping cataclysmic battle will have occurred between good and evil atop the Statue of Liberty.

I loved this movie…I can't stress that enough.  Director Bryan Singer, who brought us The Usual Suspects, proves to be a multi-genre master with this movie, creating an action and comic film that towers above many other similar releases in recent memory.  He's brought a distinctive and amazing look to the picture:  slick, metallic, with colors ranging from cool to hot, and definitely futuristic.  And he directs the action sequences with the hand of a skilled master, crafting each one carefully for maximum thrill and impact. 

But it is his careful attention to his characters and the way he draws the audiences into their lives and his story that makes X Men a truly terrific picture.  The entire cast has signed on for at least two more films in the series, and for once, I can't wait for the sequels!

Video ****

Fox has built a reputation for quality DVDs, and this one ranks high among their offerings.  As with their former issue, this is a spectacular looking anamorphic transfer, and one that will give your monitor a real workout with Singer's extensive palates of color and texture and lighting throughout.  Images are sharp and clear with no grain, break up or other distractions, and the deliberate color schemes, even when extreme, maintain good balance and clarity, with no noticeable bleeding.  For a film that's a visual feast, you can't ask for better than this disc.

Audio **** (both versions)

The 5.1 soundtrack is the equal to the video:  as you would expect from an action oriented movie, the audio stays plenty busy, with lots of discreet uses of the subwoofer and rear stages.  One of my favorite moments, however, was NOT an action sequence, but a demonstration of Xavier's mind powers, where his voice emanated from different channels at different times…it definitely had me looking over my shoulder more than once!  Apart from that, the soundtrack is lively, extremely dynamic, and with razor sharp clarity:  no noise, no dialogue problems, and plenty of punch!  

As an added bonus, there is a revamped DTS offering this time around, which manages to improve on an already good thing with more subtle spatial differences and a wider dynamic range.

Features ****

Version 1.5 kicks it up a notch in this department.  This two disc set is plenty packed!  Disc One features a running commentary with Bryan Singer and Brian Peck, plus an enhanced viewing mode.  Activate it, and while you watch, you'll be automatically taken to 6 deleted scenes at the spots where they would have occurred (with optional Singer commentary), plus 17 featurettes you can access via remote when a symbol pops up for specific behind-the-scenes footage.  The content is great; my only complaint is I would have liked being able to access them on their own without having to scan through the movie for them.  The deleted scenes also sometimes include bits that WERE left in the movie, so seamless branching wasn't possible, and what's left is sometimes a bit repetitive.  Minor complaints.

Disc Two starts with Bryan Singer's introduction while on the set of X-2.  From there, you can access a ton of goodies.  There are separate featurettes on pre-production, costumes, and visual effects, a retrospective featurette, movie premiere footage including the big gala event on Ellis Island, some multi-angle scene studies, animatic storyboards, an extensive stills gallery with artwork, hardware, locations and more, plus 3 trailers, 9 TV spots, 12 web interstitials, and a sneak preview teaser for X-2.

Summary:

X-Men is an unqualified triumph…one of the best action movies of recent memories, and easily one of the two or three best comic book films ever.  It's fun, exciting, and most importantly, draws you in by giving you characters with real stories, so that you become involved in the action rather than just being a spectator to it.  With 1.5, Fox has made a good thing even better, and fans should very pleased with the results...not to mention feeling more than ready for the sequels!

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