Third Degree

The X-Men survive explosions, a threat to mutant rights, and Brett Ratner

If little else, the third and supposedly final entry in the X-Men mega-franchise suggests that some movies—or at any rate some formulas—are not just critic-proof, they might even be director-proof. Under the supervision of Bryan Singer, the first two X-films were compact and almost complex, snarky and soulful in equal measure. Fans of the comics applauded their geeky fidelity to the source material. Even for non-devotees, the model was not a bad one for a Bush-era summer action movie. Marvel's '60s-incubated mythology proved readily adaptable to an early-21st-century political zeitgeist. And by design, the dense, proliferating population of the X-Men cosmos, facilitated by a rotating ensemble of elaborately dyed, bewigged, and prostheticized stars in virtually cameo-size roles, short-circuits exposition and staves off boredom. While most blockbusters struggle with awkward gear shifts, slogging through deadweight plots to justify money-shot explosions, the X-Men films, a haphazard, anything-goes assemblage of shape- shifts and mood swings, are pleasingly unburdened by the need for coherence.

All of which is to say: Not even the dreaded Brett Ratner can fuck up the template too badly. True, even at 104 minutes, X-Men: The Last Stand suffers from some hackish bloat. And nothing here—not even the climactic uprooting of the Golden Gate Bridge, levitated over San Francisco Bay and repurposed as a gangway to Alcatraz— approaches the wit and bounce of X2's terrific set pieces (Magneto's haughty jailbreak, Nightcrawler's whirling-dervish White House attack). But thanks to lowered expectations (Ratner's previous film: After the Sunset) and in a season of economically disastrous disaster movies, the mere fact that this Memorial Day juggernaut is not a catastrophe should spell good news for a depressed industry.

The movie opens with human-mutant relations in a queasy truce: Troublemaking Magneto (Ian McKellen) is in hiding, his polymorphic sidekick Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) has been detained ("We have some new prisons," the secretary of Homeland Security declares), and the administration has established a Department of Mutant Affairs, headed by the hirsute, blue-skinned Dr. Hank McCoy, a/k/a Beast (Kelsey Grammer).

Cigar aficionado: Jackman
photo: 20th Century Fox
Cigar aficionado: Jackman

On paper, The Last Stand boasts the meatiest hook of the three X-films. A cure for mutancy is discovered, splitting the mutant population into those who welcome a reversion to normalcy (and assimilation into society) and those who consider it a fate worse than death. Given Singer's admirably unsubtle handling of the homo subtext, which reached a touching pinnacle in Iceman's coming-out-as-mutant scene in X2, the new film begs to be read, as Michael Musto noted in these pages last week, as an allegory about the ex-gay movement. Ratner and his committee of writers (the screenplay is credited to Simon Kinberg and Incident at Loch Ness director Zak Penn) make a few tentative stabs at nuance. Beast, walking fur ball that he is, notes the complications of covering, given that some mutants are more visibly mutated than others. Sensitive, sulky Rogue (Anna Paquin) is left to weigh the pros and cons of her scary power-sucking abilities—the biggest con being the impossibility of any hanky-panky with her boyfriend Iceman (Shawn Ashmore).

Despite the moral and ethical quandaries implicit in its premise, the movie soon turns simplistic. Dissolving the wary alliance of the previous film, The Last Stand reprises the age-old war between the moderates, represented by Patrick Stewart's sedate Professor Xavier, and the extremists, led by Ian McKellen's just-shy-of-queeny Magneto. As usual, the good guys, who also include Hugh Jackman's blandly brooding Wolverine and Halle Berry's Storm, promoted here to some sort of academy mother hen, get a little too much screen time. With mutant rights under threat, Magneto goes cruising for fresh meat—and emerges with a gang of thuggy hotheads (including Aaron Stanford's Pyro and Vinnie Jones's Juggernaut), dressed to resemble extras from The Warriors. The movie stacks the deck by framing Magneto as an unambiguous terrorist, who even makes his own Osama-ish videos for the benefit of news broadcasts.

More intriguing than the good-versus-evil death match is the operatic implosion of the passions and jealousies that have progressively ensnared Wolverine, Cyclops (James Marsden), and the intense, enigmatic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). A grieving Cyclops appears to summon his beloved Jean back from the watery grave where she sacrificed herself at the end of X2—except she's resurrected as Phoenix, a mad maenad who favors flowing outfits and helplessly kills the ones she loves while looking like she's nursing a fierce migraine. (Squinting and perennially backlit, Janssen seems to have modeled her vein-popping performance on Drew Barrymore's in Firestarter.) Of course, the romantic triangle ends tragically, on a flaming pyre, no less—it's the movie's most satisfying moment, a grand articulation of the teenage truism that there is nothing more apocalyptic than impossible love.

 
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