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'X-Men, The'

Mutant power: 'The X-Men' is thoughtful, action-packed and true to the comic

Friday, July 14, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"The X-Men" wants to be taken seriously. Yes, it springs to life directly from the pages of Marvel Comics, chronicling the exploits of mutant superheroes whose flaws just happens to mesh with those of the teen-age audience. Yes, the movie employs a battalion of special effects. Yes, that's Sir Ian McKellen floating through the air like some kind of grinning evil wizard.

'The X-Men'

RATING: PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.

STARRING: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman.

DIRECTOR: Bryan Singer.


CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars.


But alongside the derring-do, the designer uniforms and the characters with 9-inch claws or 12-inch tongues or blue skin that can shift shapes, "The X-Men" marches through its sober themes -- prejudice, alienation, insecurity.

If the movie doesn't quite mesh its more ambitious elements as perfectly as one might like, the fact that they exist at all in a potential summer-movie franchise is both gratifying and true to the traditions of the comic itself.

"The X-Men" begins with the premise that there are mutants among us. One look at some of humanity's more inhuman specimens -- or, if you're a cynic, at its more sainted ones -- may be proof enough. But the movie's characters actually display physical and mental characteristics of their differences.

Cyclops (James Marsden) can burn a hole through a mountain with the rays emanating from his eyes, but he can't look at anyone without protective eyewear. Storm (Halle Berry) can control the weather. Rogue (Anna Paquin) drains the life force from anyone she touches. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) enjoys advanced regenerative powers, but he can't heal the metallic framework someone welded to his skeleton, including a set of 9-inch claws that spring from his fingers.

Some elements of society, represented by rabble-rousing Sen. Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), want to lock them up and throw away the key. The leader of the X-Men, the telepathic Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), gives them shelter at his school for gifted (read mutant) children while trying to make peace with the majority.

But Xavier's former colleague, Magneto (McKellen), has grown to hate the haters so much that he wouldn't mind destroying them all. Actually, he has a more ironic but no less fatal plan in mind for humanity, to be carried out by his own troop of mutants. Xavier and his charges must thwart his evil design.

Director Bryan Singer, working from a screenplay by newcomer David Hayter, overcomes the potential pulp inherent in the material with a strong set of opening scenes that introduce the characters and explain their motivations, good and bad.

Kelly's diatribe in the Senate recalls all those demagogues of the past who have stoked public hysteria for political gain. I thought of Joe McCarthy hunting Communists and of government officials in the 1980s calling for the segregation of people with AIDS. Casting McKellen, an openly gay actor, as the target who intends to retaliate adds a jolt to the proceedings. For that matter, Davison played a gay man in the AIDS drama "Longtime Companion."

But there are other kinds of prejudice, as well. At one point, Magneto plans to fight back "by any means necessary," quoting the words of Malcolm X. And in a flashback, we learn that Magneto's introduction to hatred started all too early in life, in the most horrible of circumstances. As rain falls to the ground, it creates what looks like some sort of primordial soup. Is intolerance embedded in our DNA?

So it goes. Rogue (Anna Paquin), horrified by her newly discovered power, heads to what looks like the end of the earth and meets Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). They carry the emotional arc of the story as the newest members of Xavier's flock, uncomfortable in their new surroundings and in the use of their powers while learning to trust each other and their new friends.

But you can't trust everything you see when the enemy ranks include a shape-shifter, Mystique (Rebecca Romjin-Stamos), who can make herself look like any person or object. Toad (Ray Park) and Sabretooth (Tyler Mane) are formidable fighters.

The special effects are impressive but they don't dominate the movie, as Singer enforces a tone of muted intensity. The quiet authority of Stewart and McKellen contributes to the mood.

At times, in fact, I wish the movie would lighten up a little. The closest we get to humor is the sniping between Wolverine and Cyclops, cocky young men who sense a potential rival in each other. When Cyclops asks Wolverine to prove he isn't Mystique in disguise, Wolverine calls him a vulgar name. OK, it must be him, Cyclops figures.

On the other hand, the movie's powerful theme of battling bigotry ultimately submerges into the narrative, even though the plot seems slight (in fact, some questions are left open for the anticipated sequel). The action is spread fairly consistently through the movie, although Singer dilutes the fight scenes by making a cut on almost every punch or kick.

On the whole, though, "The X-Men" proves to be one of your more thoughtful visual spectaculars.

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