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Friday, Sept. 8, 2006

CLASSY SERIES ENDS IN STYLE

X-Men go out with a bang


Just two weeks ago I nearly had an aneurysm venting on comic-book movies in general, and "Superman" in particular. And I did the same in last week's review of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

X-Men: The Last Stand Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Hugh Jackman (right) and Halle Berry in "X-Men: The Last Stand" (c) TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Director: Brett Ratner
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: English
Opens Sept. 9, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

So what do I draw to review this week? "X-Men: The Last Stand." That's the problem with comic-book flicks, they're everywhere these days, and -- like junk food or nitrous oxide -- the more you get, the less you you can handle it.

I'm sure the aneurysm is coming someday, but it won't be the "X-Men" series that gives it to me. "The Last Stand," the third installment in the series about superpowered mutants fighting to save or destroy society as we know it, continues to display a certain charm that its more formulaic cousins do not.

"The Last Stand" -- with director Brett Ratner ("Rush Hour 2") standing in for Brian Singer, who's defected to the "Superman" franchise -- continues to aim for an operatic intensity, and largely succeeds. The central theme here -- and its thrown at us not once, but in four separate plot lines -- is the intersection of love and death, of how the passions unleashed by desire can be terrifyingly destructive.

Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), seemingly killed in episode two, reappears at Alkali Lake where she is reunited with her lover Scott Summers, aka Cyclops (James Marsden), with disastrous consequences. Jean's telepathic powers have increased exponentially, and she displays a new, unstable personality known as "Phoenix."

Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), mentor of the X-Men, tries to contain Phoenix, who he describes as "a perfectly instinctual creature," by putting Jean in an induced coma. Jean's not-so-secret admirer, Logan, aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), decides to wake her and when she immediately tries to jump his bones, he knows something's wrong.

Meanwhile, Eric Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Ian McKellen), calls for a violent campaign against the U.S. government, which has announced the development of a vaccine that will "cure" the X-gene, the basis of mutant powers. (And parallels to the fringe Christian fundamentalists who wish to "cure" homosexuality seem intentional). Magneto fears that the vaccine will be forced upon the mutant community in a bid to exterminate them.

Various mutants turn up and take sides -- shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and human pile-driver The Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) with Magneto, and the blue-haired Beast (Kelsey Grammer) and Storm (Halle Berry) with the X-Men. And then everything builds to a big Armageddon where Magneto tries to eliminate the source of the vaccine, the power-sapping mutant boy Leech (Cameron Bright.)

Part of the charm of the "X-Men" series is their creative use of special effects. There are some great sequences here: Jean levitates every car on a quiet suburban street while making the water from a garden hose flow skyward, and Wolverine takes on a regenerating mutant, whose limbs grow back as fast as he can chop them off with his knuckle-blades. The finale has a ton of inspired one-on-ones, including the weather-channeling Storm versus the hyperspeed Callisto (Diana Ramirez), and -- of course -- the fire-and-ice combo of Pyro and Iceman.

"The Last Stand" has one problem: It's so crowded with characters and plotlines, many of them fail to leave much of an impression. You can't just cram a hundred issues worth of story into a mere three films. As usual, it's the babes -- Berry, Janssen, and Romijn -- who make the biggest impression with both their performances and their looks. Hugh Jackman's ornery, impulsive Wolverine, however, remains the film's most charismatic mutant, a thin-skinned outsider even among outsiders. This may be "The Last Stand," but I doubt we've seen the last of Jackman in this role.

Best of all are Stewart and McKellen, veteran actors who successfully bring a bit of gravitas to what are, well, comic-book roles. McKellen, in particular, is excellent at portraying a bad guy who isn't simply evil, but someone who, in his mind, is doing the right thing. As a Holocaust survivor, Magneto has vowed that mutants will never be persecuted in the same way, and if that takes violence, so be it. And somewhere along the way, his mutant-as-advanced-human philosophy leads him into the same sort of deluded moral rationalizations as the Nazis, with their belief in the Ubermensch. This is the sort of moral complexity we rarely get in these sort of movies, with their Lex Luthors and Jokers.

Oh lord, look at me, I'm praising the philosophical depth of a superhero movie. Next thing you know I'll be frequenting Akiba maid cafes. Pardon me while I go off to see something French and pretentious to reverse the process.



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