**½/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A-
starring Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry
screenplay by Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris
directed by Bryan Singer
by Walter Chaw Where the first film opened with a Holocaust backstory, the second instalment begins in the White House with a quote from Abraham Lincoln's inaugural address and a cool doubling of Aaron Shikler's pensive portrait of John F. Kennedy. X-Men is setting itself up as a high-minded comic book franchise, one unusually committed to relating its empowerment panel soap-opera with solid performances, decent scripting, and direction from a filmmaker, Bryan Singer, interested in the sanctity of narrative. The problems with X2's (a.k.a. X-Men 2 and X2: X-Men United) premise and its wrangling of so large an ensemble are fairly obvious: there are no real limits placed on the powers of the "X-Men" mutants and there is little time afforded to the proper establishment of relational conflict.
On the one hand, it's made clear that individually, the mutants are variously able to control weather, literally kill every human being on earth with a thought, suck the power out of someone, teleport between any two points, instantly freeze moisture, and so on. But when push comes to shove, they're not able to start an airplane, or fix a break in a dam. You can't have them be both omni-powerful and hamsters; more, when it becomes necessary to honour the picture's romantic triangles and prodigal son subplots, the film depends too much on either familiarity with its comic-book source or forgiveness for the lack of development. More than its predecessor, X2 is just a long expository set-up for the next film--an extended second act for an eventual serial, perhaps, but at least a trilogy for now.
Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) continues his search for his origins as Bobby (Shawn Ashmore) has a wonderful "coming out" sequence to his family. ("Have you ever tried not being a mutant?") The film is a race/queer parable at its heart, preaching a message of acceptance with super-powered genetic freaks subbing for various minority groups. It's the sort of conceit that allows the picture's villain Magneto (Ian McKellen) an unusual amount of sympathy in his PETA-like tactics against a closed-minded populace. The human Goebbels this time around is Stryker (Brian Cox), a man with a gimp son (not Donnie Wahlberg) who secretes a mind-controlling agent that the evil general uses on various muties.
The highlight of the film comes early in a frankly stunning action set-piece that follows Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) as he infiltrates the White House; the rest of the action scenes are either routine or, in one bizarre sequence, borrowed almost in their entirety from Firestarter. There's an over-reliance on CGI in X2, and a certain lightness in taking advantage of the rich X-Men universe. When the evil military complex breaks into Professor Xavier's School for the Gifted, only two of the mutant children (one of them's Colossus) do anything but run around screaming. To its credit, though, the picture is fairly unapologetic about its violence and the casualties that both sides inflict on one another. Wolverine, in particular, gets a few opportunities to mumble "bub" as he's killing people.
And without enough room for individual intrigue, the attempts at poignancy are appreciated and earnest but hamstrung to the cause of too large a cast. Sacrifices are peculiarly weightless given the omnipotence of its heroes (and the understanding that people in comic books don't stay dead very long), and when the ending comes, although it comes at the end of two-and-a-quarter hours, it feels too soon. This isn't necessarily a good thing. X2 is probably best appreciated, like its predecessor, as a canny satire of the United States' inability to live up to the standard of acceptance established by its doctrine. Made more explicit this time around as something of a Gay Rights platform, elements of the first film's Semitic concerns--including a disturbing "final solution" subplot that genuinely needed a clearer resolution--do play a major role. As screeds on racism and intolerance go, however, the picture goes down smoothly on the back of its professionalism. X2 isn't inspired, but it's fine, and considering the number of pitfalls involved in a project like this, "fine" is pretty good.
by Bill Chambers X2 looks and sounds stunning on DVD, but the predictably thorough, THX-certified package would probably stand taller in a market that didn't just see the release of The Two Towers: Extended Edition. Although the Ludovico Technique-produced supplementary material feels like it was cobbled-together on a home computer, that's not its problem--slick SE content is a dime a dozen. Rather, the X2 extras suffer from a certain aloofness. You don't get the sense, when it's all over, that you've joined a secret club. Nevertheless, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (fullscreen sold separately) is dazzlingly clear, with only--only--a smattering of over-sharpened images to its debit.
Nudging this disc into the realm of must-purchase by itself is a DTS 5.1 track that had me giddy from bamf! one. Nightcrawler's circumnavigation of the Oval Office from inside its very walls aggressively utilizes the discrete soundstage, while the twisters that besiege the X jet are, from an aural standpoint, unnervingly inescapable. For subwoofer thrills, try Pyro's assault on the police cars (a sequence nicely deconstructed on the second disc), or the climactic bursting of the dam, which is admittedly less than gentle on the ears. (The default Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is also tremendous, yet pales in comparison.) Without factoring in the two commentaries and THX Optimode diagnostics, that's it for Disc 1 of this two-platter affair. On those yakkers: the first, pairing director Bryan Singer with his cinematographer Tom Sigel, is the best and more anecdotal (I love that they cast mimes to play the petrified museum-goers instead of leaning on the bullet-time crutch); despite a promising roster (producers Ralph Winter and Lauren Shuler-Donner and screenwriters David Hayter, Dan Harris, and Michael Dougherty), the second commentary finds a quartet of talented individuals too often at a loss for words.
HISTORY OF THE X-MEN
THE SECRET ORIGIN OF X-MEN (15 mins.)
As if to pre-empt further accusations of spotlight-glomming, "X-Men" creator Stan Lee immediately acknowledges the involvement of artist Jack Kirby, who drew the comic's early run. Lee repeats a durable anecdote about Marvel's refusal to let the word "mutant" appear within the title since it was not in common usage circa 1963, only to approve the equally incomprehensible alternative "X-Men." Fan fave Chris Claremont reveals that he was part of the discussions in the late-Eighties between Marvel and James Cameron to bring "X-Men" to the big screen; when Cameron moved on, Marvel's Executive in Charge of Snake Oil Sales Avi Arad tried to transform the property into a TV show. Fascinating stuff.
NIGHTCRAWLER REBORN (8 mins.)
Chuck Austen rationalizes continuity-violating changes to Nightcrawler in his commissioned reimagining of the character.
NIGHTCRAWLER ATTACK: MULTI-ANGLE STUDY
Toggle between the animatic, rough assembly, and finished effects for Nightcrawler's White House break-in.
EVOLUTION IN THE DETAILS: THE DESIGN OF X2 (18 mins.)
Production designer Guy Dyas walks us through the film's six major sets: the Cerebro; the School for the Gifted (which is one floor that gets redressed for upstairs and downstairs hijinks); the Museum (a Vancouver showroom that happened to have "X" patterned scaffolding--a detail I confess I didn't notice until Dyas pointed it out); the plastic prison and metal-detection corridor; the Oval Office; and Stryker's base, a 200x600 ft. storage facility. Replacing the first film's John Myhre, Dyas is reverent of Myhre's handiwork.
UNITED COLORS OF X (9 mins.)
Costume designer Louise Mincebach says her job was to make the costumes "look the same, but different," an instruction that becomes a more embedded refrain/koan of this DVD with each new interviewee. Perfectly illustrating the instincts of self-preservation possessed by people in the film industry, Mincebach laments that she didn't get to strut her stuff, since Stryker's siege on Xavier's mansion strands a lot of the cast in pyjamas for a large percentage of the picture: "It would've been more fun if they had been attacked at dinnertime!"
WOLVERINE/DEATHSTRIKE FIGHT SCENE (1 min.)
A rehearsal for the adamantium-on-adamantium brawl executed by nameless stuntees. This is probably a good time to reiterate that, for as much as I enjoyed these supplements, they made me a little homesick for the Lord of the Rings DVDs, which are philosophically opposed to preserving the anonymity of tertiary members of the production.
THE SECOND UNCANNY X-MEN: THE MAKING OF X2 (60 mins.)
Singer says he felt, with the first film, that he "was making a trailer for a larger X-Men movie," calling X2 a "real X-Men movie." With Singer's incessant devaluation of the original, I'm starting to wonder if my respect for its minimalism is misplaced. This is otherwise a periodically enchanting documentary, particularly when Hugh Jackman signs a young fan's yearbook ("You'll probably tell people we went to school together") and exposes an unsung fear, that of reading the script for a film you can't refuse, contractually speaking. Paquin (above left) charms in a segment that proves she did her own stunts (she was unreluctant because it occurred to her that she is not the type of actress for whom the opportunity to be violently hoisted from an airplane seat would regularly arise), and Singer and depressingly young screenwriters Dougherty and Harris touch on the labour-intensive process it took to arrive at the script for X2. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a closing outtake to rival the Spider-Man blooper from the 2000 DVD release of X-Men.
INTRODUCING THE INCREDIBLE NIGHTCRAWLER (10 mins.)
Terry Notary, the physicality coach who stole the show on the Planet of the Apes DVD, returns to instruct Alan Cumming in the ways of walking with a prehensile tail, and their out-of-context bouncing around culminates in Cumming ripping his pants.
NIGHTCRAWLER STUNT REHEARSAL (2 mins.)
An animatic combined of CGI and live-action footage.
NIGHTCRAWLER TIME-LAPSE (4 mins.)
Described by Cumming as "Chinese torture" in the "Introducing..." featurette, Nightcrawler's hours-long make-up application gets condensed to four spastic minutes.
FX2 - VISUAL EFFECTS (25 mins.)
VF/X supervisor Michael Fink expresses disdain for his work on the first film while making the odd presumption that it "nearly" resulted in an Academy Award nomination regardless. Fink and a coterie of artists from the effects house "Rhythm & Hues" pull back the curtain on the tornadoes, Nightcrawler's teleportations (personally, I'd rather know how they arrived at that perfect bamf! sound), Magneto's prison escape, the Cerebro, and the dam-break. The revelation that particle animation is the secret ingredient to a convincing illusion is one to be heeded, that's for sure. Why this segment wasn't filed under "Post-Production," however, is mystifying.
REQUIEM FOR MUTANTS: THE SCORE FOR X2 (12 mins.)
Given that the original film's composer, Michael Kamen, passed away last week from a Multiple Sclerosis-induced cardiac arrest, it seems in exceptionally poor taste that composer John Ottman doesn't so much as mention his predecessor. (It's bad policy not to, in any event.) Too, I miss Howard Shore's articulate justifications on the Lord of the Rings Extended Editions; "My process is panic, basically," Ottman says of his scoring methods. But then, this is the guy who removed himself from "X1" to direct Urban Legends: Final Cut: journeyman be thy name.
X2 GLOBAL WEBCAST HIGHLIGHTS (17 mins.)
On the eve of X2's worldwide theatrical release, Fox publicist Michael Broidy conducts banal one-on-one interrogations with Singer, Winter, Shuler-Donner, and most of the cast, excluding Halle "Kiss My Black Ass" Berry and including Paquin at peak radiance. Singer's advice to young filmmakers is great ("Find good collaborators"), but Broidy is more interested in soundbites that will pimp X2, turning this into a drudge session for the already-converted.
Eleven in total, all in semi-polished 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. No explanation is given for these elisions, though the heavy bloodletting here suggests the MPAA had something to do with a few of the cuts, and a funny moment where a little boy pukes from being bamf'ed was probably omitted because it throws a gap in logic into sharp relief: Sure, Nightcrawler can teleport at will, but shouldn't clinging to someone inhibit his powers or simply cause that person to plummet to the ground mid-bamf?
Six in total. Do not overlook, under any circumstances, the sub-gallery designated "The Unseen X2," wherein you'll uncover sketches for the "Danger Room" and other story elements that never materialized due to budget and scheduling restrictions. (The Danger Room got as far as the construction stage.)
Three trailers for X2, a PSA preaching against driving under the influence of marijuana (!), and instructions for obtaining three free Marvel comics via DVD-ROM.
It's more satisfying to explore the X2 DVD than the X-Men disc or even X-Men 1.5. But that brings up a maddening disparity: X2 comes in a flipper keepcase, X-Men 1.5 in a cardboard/gatefold digipak--evolutionary gaps, indeed. Originally published: November 23, 2003.