Despite the pre-release concern among fans (due to RUSH HOUR’s Brett Ratner taking over as director) and a slightly diminished critical response, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND turns out to be a pretty decent summer flick. It has a more interesting premise than its predecessors (involving a cure — possibly involuntarily) for mutants, and the action is even more fast and furious than before, creating an exciting, fun-filled event that works as simple entertainment while still retaining the dour subtext about an oppressed minority trying to come to terms with the entrenched “normal” characters. The result is far from perfect, but it does manage to move more in the direction of a crowd-pleasing thrill ride without completely lobotomizing itself.
A brief prologue shows Xavier (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) in their younger days (when they were still friends), as they reach out to a young Jean Grey, whose tremendous powers portend of serious consequences if not held in check. Years later, the film proper begins with an announcement that a pharmaceutical company has found a cure that will turn “mutants” into normal human beings. This ignites a debate in the mutant community: should they take the cure and assimilate, or is taking the cure the equivalent of betraying their mutant comrades? Magneto uses this as fuel to the fire of his quest to overthrow humanity, predicting (correctly, as it turns out) that human will weaponize the cure and use it against them. Meanwhile, Cyclops (James Marsden) heads out to the lake where Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) was engulfed while saving her comrades at the end of X-MEN UNITED. She resurrects, but her formerly suppressed superpowers now manifest themselves in the form of an alternate personality called the Phoenix. Magneto recruits her to his cause, and along with his army they set out to destroy the drug company’s headquarters, situated on Alcatraz. The remaining X-Men (whose numbers seem to have dwindled to Wolverine, Storm, and a few teen-agers) mount a defense, stopping Magneto’s army. But who can stop the unleashed power of Phoenix, who is capable of obliterating entire squads of human beings with barely a thought? Perhaps Wolverine, with his incredible powers of regeneration (not to mention a romantic attachment to Jean Grey, which may make her hesitant to kill him)…
The movie begins stronger than it ends. The first half is filled with lots of plot threads and ideas, so much so that the story almost seems overcrowded, but all of it is so interesting that it seems to be tying together in a satisfying way. It’s not enough that Magneto is back raising an army to stop the mutant cure; we also get the return of Jean Grey, who has become a sort of schizophrenic, with a second personality given over to the dark side.
Unfortunately, once all the separate threads are introduced, they are never satisfactorily woven together; instead of an intricate tapestry, we get a bit of a mess in the third act, as if the script cannot quite figure out what to do with all the characters and their relationships. This is most obvious in the way some of them keep disappearing for large chunks of screen time, as if they have been forgotten. Even when they are on screen, the script often leaves them on the sidelines, like a half-remembered after-thought. Thus, we have Phoenix/Jean Grey mostly standing around during the “last stand” climax — at least until our heroes defeat Magneto. Only then does the Phoenix unleash her awesome, destructive power — leaving us to wonder why she didn’t do so when it could have helped her new ally, Magneto.
This short-circuits the drama, as the action crowds out the story. After hearing Magneto chide his old friend Xavier for trying to suppress Jean Grey’s power, the ending should have featured a life-or-death confrontation between Magneto and Jean Grey in her Phoenix persona. Instead, all we get is a feeble “What have I done?” from Magneto, who conveniently slips away in the confusion (so that he can be back for future sequels).
The other problem is that the film (or at least is marketing) pretends to be RETURN OF THE KING – that is, the final chapter in a trilogy – even though the story has no definite conclusion that would make it feel like a permanent ending. Instead, the script casually disses several characters, either killing them off or deleting their powers. This works for a while, fooling the viewer into thinking that anything can happen because the filmmakers are not saving the characters for the next sequel. But in the end, even this strategy turns out to be a ruse: the film has not one but two scenes at the end that restore/revive certain characters, clearly leaving the door wide open for the franchise to continue with no continuity problems at all.
In a truly spectacular special effects extravaganza, Magneto gets his minions to Alcatraz Island by using his magnetic powers to bend the famous San Francisco Bay Bridge to reach the isolated piece of land. Perhaps less obviously spectacular but no less fun, the film contrives to get the two ethnic female mutants, Storm (Halley Berry) and Calisto (Dania Ramirez) into a knockdown, drag-out fight during the climactic finale. It’s probably the best scene of its kind since Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin in TOTAL RECALL.
The character of Nightcrawler, who was introduced and prominently featured in the second film, is absent here, without explanation. There were several reasons for this, having to do with the actor’s reluctance to done the makeup again and the difficulty of fitting him into the story. Co-screenwriter Zak Penn explained, “The makeup was hell of Alan Cummings, and he was not excited about coming back. We had this enormous cast that we had to deal with, so we had all these different contingencies. With Alan, given that he didn’t really want to do it and we didn’t have a great [story for him]…I love the character, and we didn’t want to give him a throw-away cameo. It ended up falling by the wayside.” Co-screenwriter Simon Kinberg added, “X2 had completed the arc of Nightcrawler. Also, Nightcrawler’s relationship to the main plot, the cure, [would have been] very similar to the Beast’s relationship or Storm’s relationship. It started to feel like there were political redundancies.”
SPOILER ALERT: Like CONSTANTINE, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND contains an epilogue that runs after the credits: a brief piece of footage consisting of single shot and a couple of lines of dialogue that deliver a surprise “tag” designed to send a thrill of joy through the crowd. Early in the movie, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) gives a lecture on medical ethics to a class while showing a televised image of a brain-dead patient in a hospital. Xavier is later killed by Jean Grey when she resurrects and turns to the dark side as the Phoenix — her almost unlimited power beyond any control. The epilogue takes us back to the hospital bed, where the patient is lying — and we hear Stewart’s voice from beneath the bandages, implying that Xavier’s mind has transferred itself into the empty receptacle.
X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006). Directed by Brett Ratner. Screenplay by Simon Kinberg & Zak Penn, based on the Marvel comic book characters. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Kelsey Grammer, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Rebecca Romijin, Micheal Murphy.
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