With nine films thus far and at least two more on the horizon, all released over a near-twenty year window, 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men” film franchise is something of a wonder in today’s world of near- constant reboots and remakes. While it has by no means been a smooth ride, the fact remains that the long-running series has been a widely beloved and infinitely important one, especially when placed into historical perspective. Director Bryan Singer’s original entry was one of the first major comic-to-film adaptations that convinced studios and audiences alike that comic-book movies could not only be mature and enthralling, but could be certified hits once again after the genre seemed to die-out in the 90’s. And thus, a franchise was born and has stuck around ever since, through thick and thin.
It’s almost a surprise, however, that one of the best entries in the entire saga came so early- 2003’s follow-up “X2.” With Singer once again at the helm, the film is in every conceivable way an improvement over his excellent first film- it’s more thoughtful, more daring, more exciting… I think one could even reasonably say that not only is it arguably the greatest film in the franchise- it just might be one of the best comic-to-film adaptations of all time. Yes, it’s that good.
Some time after the original film, a brainwashed mutant called Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) is sent on a mission to try and assassinate the President of the United States under the guise of being a martyr for Mutant Freedom. Despite the mutant being stopped, the troubling event gives Colonel William Stryker (Brian Cox) the political edge and backing needed to get approval for an “investigation” on Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters- but his investigation is actually an invasion, as he storms the school, taking many students hostage and forcing the remaining X-Men to flee. At the same time, Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) are sent on a mission to collect Nightcrawler and learn his motivation for the attack, Cyclops (James Marsden) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) are captured by Stryker’s mysterious bodyguard (Kelly Hu) and the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) helps her former leader Magneto (Ian McKellan) escape from his high-tech prison. Soon, the remaining mutants (including Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Anna Paquin as Rogue and Shawn Ashmore as Iceman) are forced to team up with their former adversary to try and stop Stryker’s scheme to use Charles and his powers to wipe out all of the mutants on Earth.
Given the film’s nature as an ensemble piece, it’s near-impossible to discuss the performances of each actor individually. But to keep it brief, everyone returning from the original is great in their respective roles. Special commendation goes to Hugh Jackman and his continued excellence in the role that helped to define him as a superstar and to Famke Jannsen, who gets a lot more attention this time around. They are by far the stand-outs of the returning cast. I also highly enjoyed Stewart and McKellen, who bring a sense of class and elegance to their roles and are incredible as always. The newest additions are also outstanding. Brian Cox is one of the greatest actors of our time, and his turn as Stryker is quite remarkable. He gives the character both an easily- “despiseable” sense of threat and dread, yet also a nice and subtle sense of pain and pathos. He’s a cruel man, yet he has a past that might explain why he is the way he is. Alan Cumming is just magical as the frightened yet also amusing Nightcrawler, and there’s a lot of great moments in his performance. And Kelly Hu makes for a fun and furious adversary as Styker’s second-in-command “Lady Deathstrike.”
Singer returns to direct from a script by “X-Men” scribe David Hayter and the writing duo of Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris. Singer got his start with hard-hitting thrillers like “The Usual Suspects” and “Apt Pupil”, and I think that’s part of what gives him an edge with the storytelling. He plays the stories straight and gives them a sense of real and honest threat, while also maintaining an emotional core that feels realistic despite the outlandish nature of the story and heavy Science-Fiction leanings of the material. He’s also a very gifted visual artist with a slick and savage sense of composition and flow that lends itself well to the needs of high- concept action. His work on the series has always been nothing less than stunning. The script is very tightly written and juggles the plethora of characters well- everyone has their moment to shine, every major player has a clearly defined role and arc and the pacing is superb. Some wonderful work is done with the writing, and it’s an honest shame that neither Hayter nor the writing partners of Dougherty and Harris were involved in the third entry.
The rest of the production is just marvelous. (Pardon the bad joke) Composer/co-editor John Ottman shapes some wonderful and memorable musical themes that compliment the tone and style perfectly, and he weaves together shots and sequences with a masterful touch. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s visual palette is cool and visually arresting, and his work is just stunningly gorgeous. Some wonderful visual flair is given thanks to his talent. And production and costume design courtesy Guy Hendrix Dyas and Louise Mingenbach respectively is just fantastic. The film is made with nothing but top-notch work from top-notch artists.
As it stands, “X2” is easily one of the best if not the single best entry in the long-running series. Its phenomenal direction, sharp and thoughtful writing, beautiful production and outstanding cast weave an enthralling and thrilling cinematic experience that still stands tall well over a decade later. It’s up there with the best of the best in terms of comic-book movies.
10 out of 10 stars