Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Review: "X-Men: The Last Stand"

X-Men: The Last Stand - For superhero film franchises, the third entries have historically been cursed and the point where the franchises jumped the shark. Think of Superman III and Batman Forever. Sadly, the X-Men franchise has failed to avoid this curse.

The film opens in the past, when Charles Xavier and Magneto encounter a young Jean Grey for the first time. Once the film moves into the present, Cyclops, still heartbroken from Jean's death in the previous film, returns to her place of death and discovers that she's not dead after all, which has fatal consequences. Meanwhile, a corporate research facility has discovered a possible cure for mutants and the US government decides to implement it as a weapon. Reacting to the threat, Magneto forms a new Brotherhood of Mutants, leading to a final showdown with the X-Men.

Director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon) steps into the rather large shoes previously filled by Bryan Singer and trips. Where Singer went for understated performances and well-choreographed action scenes, Ratner goes for over the top performances and uninspired action scenes. Writers Simon Kinberg (Fantastic Four) and Zak Penn (Elektra) deserve their fair share of the blame. Their script simply has too much going on in it for the film's relatively short running time, making things feel rushed and incoherent. The political commentary is too obvious, laughable even, and some of the dialogue is groan inducing. While they bring in some elements which might appeal to X-Men fans, it too often feels like they have no understanding of the characters. The sad thing is the storyline is partly inspired by one written by Joss Whedon in the "Astonishing X-Men" comic book. It's too bad Whedon couldn't have been brought in to make this film or that the producers couldn't have waited for Singer to finish Superman Returns.

Visually, the film looks good, thanks to the contributions of cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential, Red Dragon), production designer Edward Verreaux (Jurassic Park III, The Scorpion King), and visual effects supervisor John Bruno (Batman Returns, Alien vs. Predator), but it should have been more than another eye candy summer action movie.

Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen are still letter perfect as Wolverine, Xavier, and Magneto. Several major characters (Cyclops and Xavier) are killed off early to give Halle Berry more screen time as Storm, but once again she shows how unsuited she is for the role (they should have kept Cyclops and Xavier alive and re-cast Storm). Famke Janssen was fine as Jean Grey in the first two films, but stumbles here as Dark Phoenix (not to mention, Janssen really looks like the middle-aged woman she is, when the film's timeline would indicate her character is in her early 30s). Also, where is the traditional Phoenix firebird effect? The Phoenix effect in this film of blackened eyes and black lines of energy flowing under her skin doesn't even make sense and contradicts the previous film. James Marsden is good as an angst-ridden Cyclops, but despite being one of the original X-Men, the writers decide he doesn't even merit an on-screen death. Shawn Ashmore fares better as another original X-Man, Iceman, and fans finally get treated to seeing him in his ice form.

Among the new cast members, Kelsey Grammer is perfect as Hank McCoy aka the Beast (his performance combined with the visual effects make for a convincing Beast). Vinnie Jones is convincing as Juggernaut, at least until he opens his mouth and spouts some horrible dialogue ("I'm the Juggernaut, bitch!"). Ben Foster is good as Angel, and this fangirl was very happy in the scenes where he was flying. Ellen Page is the third Kitty Pryde in as many movies, but she is the first one to really capture the essence of the character. Eric Dane is nice in a small role as Jamie Madrox (despite the film turing him into a villain). Dania Ramirez as Callisto, Omahyra Mota as Arclight, and Mei Melancon as Psylocke are somewhere between forgettable and atrocious.

I wanted to like this film. I really, really wanted to. I wanted to see Dark Phoenix as the powerful, tragic character she is. I didn't care if it was faithful to the "Dark Phoenix Saga", just as long as it worked within the context of the film series continuity. There were the seeds of something good here. Angel in flight, all five original X-Men in the same film, Moira MacTaggart, the Beast's trademark "oh my stars and garters!", a fastball special, a Sentinel -- these scenes show what the film could have been but isn't.

X-Men: The Last Stand is very disappointing. Don't waste your time or money.