Thursday, June 01, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand / *** (PG-13)

Logan/Wolverine: Hugh Jackman
Prof. Charles Xavier: Patrick Stewart
Magneto: Ian McKellen
Ororo Munroe/Storm: Halle Berry
Dr. Jean Grey/Phoenix: Famke Janssen
Dr. Hank McCoy/Beast: Kelsey Grammer
Marie/Rouge: Anna Paquin
Mystique: Rebecca Romijn
Scott Summers/Cyclops: James Marsden
Bobby Drake/Iceman: Shawn Ashmore
Pyro: Aaron Stanford
Juggernaut: Vinnie Jones
Warren Worthington III: Ben Foster
Callisto: Diana Ramirez
Kitty Pride/Shadowcat: Ellen Page

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Brett Ratner. Written by Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg. Running time: 104 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action violence, some sexual content and language).

When I went to see the third installment of the “X-Men” franchise, I fully expected to be writing about its allegorical parallels to our current political hot button issue of illegal immigrants and the necessity for societal tolerance of others. The first two “X-Men” films, like the comic book they’re based on, have delved heavily into the topics of civil rights and tolerance (or lack there of) in this “land of the free.” “X-Men: The Last Stand” is no more shy about wearing its political banner on its sleeve than its predecessors, but it’s much more concerned with just getting down to the nitty gritty of an all out brawl between mutants and man (and other mutants).

In the X-Men universe, there are some people who have “taken the next leap on the evolutionary ladder.” These “mutants” developed super-powers that as unique as personalities, ranging from the ability to heal almost instantly to the ability to control and manipulate metal. Since only a select few have developed these powers, naturally the rest of the human race fears them. The first two films explored the socio-political ramifications presented by this development. Some mutants were shown working for the good of humanity by trying to promote tolerance and harmony between the humans and mutants, while other mutants, bitter from the humans’ fear of them, were shown trying to assert their dominance over the human race.

In “The Last Stand” a medical research facility has developed a “cure” for the mutant gene. Some mutants whose mutations are a little more obvious, such as Beast (Kelsey Grammar, TV’s “Frasier”) and Angel (Ben Foster, “Hostage”), or those who might find life easier to live, like Rogue (Anna Paquin, “The Squid and the Whale”), are not sure where their feelings lie about this cure. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood of Mutants, lead by Magneto (Ian McKellen, “The DaVinci Code”), sees this so-called cure as a call to arms for their kind to take their rightful place as the masters of the human race. The group of mutant heroes known as the X-Men are all that stand between Magneto’s Brotherhood and the fall of mankind.

The X-Men find themselves at a crossroads as the story opens. With mutantism having worked its way into society’s mainstream, their school for gifted young children, founded by their leader Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) as a safe haven and mentoring school for unwanted mutants, has become somewhat obsolete – especially if this cure becomes widely accepted. Some of their members are considering the normal life they’ve never been able to have before.

The group is also recovering from the loss of one of their own. In the previous film, Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, “Hide and Seek”) sacrificed herself for the rest of the team. When the two love interests of the deceased psychic, Cyclops (James Marsden, “The Notebook”) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, “Van Helsing”), begin to receive messages from her, things start heating up in some not so good ways.

“The Last Stand” is quite a prophetic title considering some of the surprises the movie has in store for fans of the series. There are some deaths of major characters. (Yes, there’s an ‘s’ at the end of that word.) 20th Century Fox has also promised it would be the final installment, but the box office receipts may rescind that order. And if you stick around for the credit cookies (I did not and had to be informed of what I had missed) it becomes apparent that nothing is final in the X-Men universe.

It is good to see some characters that have stood in the periphery of past installments take larger roles this time around. Storm (Halle Berry, “Catwoman”) takes a more prominent leadership role in Jean’s absence, which is natural considering the character’s formidable ability to control the weather. Pyro (Aaron Stanford, “The Hills Have Eyes”), who started out as a good guy in “X2”, is promoted to Magneto’s number one stooge, inviting a climatic face off with former friend Iceman (Shawn Ashmore, “Terry”). Colossus (Daniel Cudmore, “Alone in the Dark”) and Kitty Pride (Ellen Page, “Hard Candy”) have gone from cameo appearances to frontline X-Men.

As always, the casting for this series is perfect. Grammar is an inspired choice for the highly intellectual mutant Beast. It seems nobody but the former professional footballer Vinnie Jones (“Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) could have personified Juggernaut. And Ben Foster makes for a good looking Angel even though his role is so condensed he never even gets a chance to take his mutant name and is only ever known in the film as Warren Worthington III.

I’ve always loved the “X-Men” for its blatant socio-political allegory, but probably what most people find fascinating are the mutant powers and abundance of different characters. Both of these elements are featured prominently in this “last stand.” Director Brett Ratner (“Red Dragon”) does a good job retaining the mood of the previous films and an even better job of pumping the action up to a state of near anarchy by the final battle. This installment has so much action it makes the first seem like an episode of “Masterpiece Theater”. It is very much a success in those terms but seems to lack some of the intensity of meaning of the previous films. Regardless, it remains true to the comic book and should satisfy fans and summer movie goers, as well as leaving a high bar to live up to for the makers of “Wolverine”.

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