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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: X-Men

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen
Director: Bryan Singer
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 104 Minutes
Release Date: July 2000
Genres: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action

*Also starring: Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Tyler Mane, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Shawn Ashmore

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

The X-Men hold a special place in my heart. As a kid, I was there when they made their debut in 1963. On the surface, the Marvel comic book bore quite a resemblance to The Fantastic Four, another Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creation, but the X-Men represented a crucial twist on the superhero concept. These young people were mutants, treated with fear and hatred by mainstream society just because they were different.

Such an inspired notion. In one fell swoop, Lee and Kirby gave the disenfranchised a comic they could call their own. The X-Men were surrogates for blacks, gays, alienated teens any group who felt the sting of stereotyping and societal intolerance. While Superman and the Fantastic Four battled galactic overlords, the X-Men were busy fighting simply for their right to be, and kicking major bigot ass when necessary.

Professor Charles Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath of enormous power, served as teacher, father figure and group leader in his position as headmaster of the Xavier School for Gifted Children, a haven for mutant youth. Over the years, the series experienced major changes, including an enormously successful reboot that replaced the original students with a more ethnic and racially diverse group of mutants. Eventually, the X-Men franchise split into a series of titles featuring so many characters that it was virtually impossible to keep track of them all.

Twenty-seven years after their creation, the X-Men have finally made it to the big screen, in what may well be the best cinematic superhero adaptation to date. While director Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") shifts characters around and stumbles periodically, he has captured the essence of the comic book. The core team makeup is different, featuring two of the original group and three from the later days, but the magic remains the same.

"X-Men" takes place in the near future, with ultra-conservative Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) campaigning for the Mutant Registration Act, which would allow the government to keep tabs on any citizen with mutant DNA. While Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) of the X-Men tries to reason with the self-righteous politician at a Senate hearing, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) senses the presence of an old friend in the chamber. The mutant known as Magneto (Ian McKellan) does not share the guarded optimism of Xavier. A Holocaust survivor, Magneto sees the hearings as the first step towards a genetic war, and the master of magnetism is ready to make a preemptive strike.

The battle lines are drawn. Magneto and his Brotherhood of Mutants: the shapeshifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), man-beast Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) and Toad (Ray "Darth Maul" Park), an incredibly agile creature with a tongue that would make Gene Simmons weep with envy, versus Xavier's A-Team: Cyclops (James Marsden), who shoots laser blasts from his eyes, weather witch Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey, who has a major in telekinesis and a minor in telepathy. Joining the trio are two newcomers: Rogue (Anna Paquin), a teen who temporarily drains the life force from anyone she touches, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackson), a skilled athlete with amazing healing powers and retractable, razor sharp claws that spring from the top of his hands.

Director Singer, working from David Hayter's efficient script, forwards the plot while providing a wealth of treats for X-fans. While visiting the school, which has a much larger population than the one in the comic, other X-Men, including Kitty Pryde and a very young Bobby "Iceman" Drake, make brief, but cleverly staged appearances. There are several in-jokes for attentive viewers, and we see the beginning of the love triangle between Wolverine, Cyclops and Jean Grey.

While most superhero movies struggle for an epic feel, "X-Men" thankfully sets its burners a bit lower, playing like a solid issue of a cinematic comic book and taking the time to flesh out a few major characters. The story revolves around Wolverine, with Aussie actor Hugh Jackson giving a knockout performance as the Canuck loner (asked if it hurts when his claws come out, he quietly answers "Every time."). Although the onscreen Rogue is significantly different from her comic book counterpart, Anna Paquin beautifully conveys the angst of a girl who cannot ever enjoy the touch of another person. And, thanks to a heart-wrenching prologue, we see the damaged child beneath Magneto's regal persona. As expected, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart are wonderful, particularly during their scenes together.

Despite limited screen time, Famke Janssen firmly establishes Jean Grey as one tough, smart cookie and, in James Marsden's hands, the smirking, tight-assed Cyclops becomes the perfect foil for Wolverine's verbal barbs. Unfortunately, Halle Berry's Storm receives no personal development. To make matters worse, Berry is saddled with a chintzy white wig straight from the Eva Gabor Woolworth's collection.

Other quibbles include Sabretooth's growl, which sounds too much like the MGM lion. A synthesis of animal and human roars would have been more effective. And, primarily due to extensive wire work, some of the action segments are a bit stiff. But these are minor complaints. "X-Men" neatly balances character interaction with grand battles, while never forgetting the theme that made the series a pop classic. For this fan, the film was a very pleasant surprise. I suspect that those unfamiliar with the comic book will have quite the good time as well.

Copyright 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott

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