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Climate Control: Storm (Halle Berry) has a look that could kill.

Mutant Marvels

There's more than just cool special effects in 'X-Men'

By Richard von Busack

THE FILM OF X-MEN has been released right after most people gave up on the comic book. Still, director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) preserves what made The Uncanny X-Men comics interesting--the soap opera of the mutants' clashing personalities. X-Men, set in the near future, concerns the first bursts of anti-mutant activity initiated by one Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) who wants to make political hay out of the emergence of the species Homo superior. Opposing him, gently but firmly, is Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a mutant paraplegic who is the world's greatest telepath, and who runs a New York boarding school for those with extra-normal powers. Also watching the anti-mutant legislation is Xavier's former friend, Erik (Ian McKellen). A concentration camp survivor, Erik believes that the human race will never outgrow intolerance, and that it's time for the post-humans to take over. Thus Erik uses his cataclysmic metal-bending powers to purge the race of Homo sapiens, using the nom de guerre Magneto.

Singer's film is weakest on the seam between the real and the comic-book worlds. Senator Kelly doesn't seem to have many angry constituents behind him. One anti-mutant protest rally, attended by some 40 hotheads, is staged badly; this crowd doesn't seem to constitute enough people to make up a lunatic fringe. As an actor, Davison looks like a minor party functionary, not a Newt Gingrich. X-Men parallels the anti-gay witch hunt by the Contractors on America--the allegory is spelled out when the evil mutant Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) corners the senator: "People like you made me afraid to go to school as a child."

As that line of dialogue suggests, X-Men has weight and craftsmanship to go with the fight scenes, especially a tense finale on the Statue of Liberty (an oversized prop just right for McKellen's grand Magneto). Hugh Jackman, as the angry Wolverine, has the charisma of a young Clint Eastwood, and is a better actor, too. The film doesn't tell you that Cyclops, whose lethal red eye-beams have to be controlled with a narrow visor, was really named Scott Summers. James Marsden plays Cyclops as a real Scott Summers, a cold WASP much less interesting than Wolverine, with his unbreakable metal claws that burst out of his skin. As the energy-leech Rogue, Anna Paquin's shaky--she goes from hooded sad girl to kinderslut in the twinkling of a scene--but she's touching in early scenes as a fragile, strange little girl bringing out the buried compassion in Jackman's Wolverine. Famke Janssen, who keeps getting better, makes a smart, compassionate Dr. Jean Grey, though Halle Berry's weather-witch Storm--den mother to the mutants in the comics--is a little lost in the shuffle.

The durable script by first-timer David Hayter is better on cause-and-effect than most of these comic book franchises. X-Men is much more solid work than The Matrix, for example, with quicker, more disorienting and less show-offy use of those digital effects which allow characters to walk on the ceiling and pause in mid-air. Though shamelessly sequel-bent, X-Men may deserve another round; Jackman's magnetism is, in its own way, equal to Magneto's.

X-Men (PG-13) directed by Bryan Singer, written by David Hayter, photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel and starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry and Famke Janssen, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the July 13-19, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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