Monday, November 18, 2013

X-Mania: X-Men: The Last Stand

After the tremendous success of the first two X-Men films (the franchise had so far earned about $700 million worldwide), and with X2: X-Men United's gripping cliffhanger, a third entry in the franchise was inevitable. But unfortunately, in spite of plans, writer/director Bryan Singer left the series to make Superman Returns before production started. In steps Brett Ratner, a man who's name just sounds like a Disney villain. With the only notable film he had to his name being Rush Hour 2, it was uncertain whether or not he would be a suitable replacement for Singer. The results are...mixed.

Now, if you are a fan of the first two X-Men films, you already hate The Last Stand on principle. But in spite of the script's best efforts to kill off beloved characters unceremoniously, reduce complex characters to saturday morning cartoon villains, and have an action-heavy finale that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, I find that there are some redeeming factors that save the third X-Men film from being a total bomb.

The story picks up some years after the events of the second film.  Scott (Cyclopes) and the rest of the X-Men are still mourning the loss of Jean Grey (Jean Grey), while Magneto rounds up rogue mutants to form an army against the humans.  There's been a cure invented; a cure that can reverse the mutant genome and turn mutants into humans instantaneously. This causes great ethical debate and some intense philosophical discussions pop up within the mutant community; do they take the cure and become normal people, or do they remain mutants, because that's the way they are and there's nothing to cure?  Never before have the parallels between real world issues of homosexuality and freedom of choice been more prevalent in the series.  It makes for a great conundrum for the characters to deal with while more sinister things are happening to the ones they love.

Jean Grey has apparently risen from the dead due to her psychic energy keeping her in a cocoon after she saved the team from a tidal wave in the previous film.  Professor Xavier reveals to Logan (Wolverine) that he had to keep Jean's mind under control when he was teaching her how to use her powers.   Her mind was split into two personalities, the more aggressive one calling itself the Phoenix.  That personality has now emerged with a vengeance, and it's uncontrollable and dangerous.

This causes yet another interesting problem for the main characters; is it right for the professor to have sealed away this entity, or should Jean have tried to fight it herself?  The Phoenix represents Jean's id, or her instinctual sense of lust, anger, and pleasure.  Every person has an id, and they need to learn how to deal with that as they mature.  Charles doesn't even give her the chance to fight it out of fear and love for her, and now it has emerged with a fury.  This will prove to have no payoff at all.  Doesn't that suck?

The entire first act is extremely well done, setting up the moral issues and the various plot threads with care and energy.  Unfortunately, the second act seems to breed one groan inducing scene after the next, until the film finally deflates, then tries again to pick up energy and be an entertaining, effects-driven blockbuster.

One huge problem with the film as a whole is Magneto, who seems to be stripped entirely of his emotionally-fueled motivations in favor of Evil Villain plots and nonsensical tactics. This is brought to the forefront several times, but non so obviously as when Mystique's powers are taken away and he abandons her. Seriously? Just like that? Their relationship seemed so strong in the previous two films, and when her powers are gone he just leaves her?  Magneto should be absolutely devastated by her permanent transformation. He would never leave her there naked and alone in that truck.  It could have been a major turning point for his character, forcing him to decide whether or not he still loves Mystique the way she is.

Another problem with Magneto is his endgame plan to wage a war with the humans. The finale scene involves Magneto moving the Golden Gate Bridge (in an extraordinary effects scene) in order to move his army of mutants to the island where the cure is being kept so they can destroy it.  I understand that it makes a statement of your power, Magneto, but what in God's name were you planning to do when you got there? He sends out the "pawns" to go and kill the mutant boy from which the cure is coming from, and they are shot down darts that inject the cure into them. Magneto is painfully aware that this was going to happen.  There goes your army, buddy.  He wastes what seems like a few hundred mutants in order to get to this boy, and I'm sorry, but I don't see the logic here.  Not to mention that he doesn't even use the Phoenix, who has turned to his side, and who was so powerful that she could have destroyed the entire island herself. Keep in mind, Ian McKellen is still excellent in the role, but the writing is just so lacking.

But enough about that. We need to get down to the character deaths. While Charle's death is handled well for the most part, poor Scott is barely mentioned after he dies. What the hell is that about? The screenplay doesn't allow the cast to mourn the loss of one of the main characters due to all of the other plot threads taking precedence, and that is just something that wouldn't have happened under Bryan Singer's control.  In the first two films, characters took priority over the plot, and if one of them dies, it needs to tie into the story.  But here, it doesn't.  It seems to be done for shock value, and that is a waste of the character.

So what does the film do well, you might ask?  Well, it may fail as an X-Men film in some regards, but it's a hell of a good action film. The visual effects, CG-ladden as they may be, impress and exhilarate on levels even above X2.  The ending battle scene is stupid on the page, and chock-full of out-of-place one-liners, but the amount of technical planning, choreography, and effects-blending is staggeringly effective.  Ratner may not have given a damn about the characters, but he sure as hell knows how to create a spectacle. It's just a shame that it comes after such a deflating second act, which does make it a bit more exhausting than it needed to be.

It also sort of works as a horror film. Famke Jansen is actually pretty scary as the Phoenix, and she turns out to be a pretty memorable villain.  She picks the characters off one by one with seemingly unstoppable power, and there's a level of unpredictability in here scenes that keeps things interesting in that regard.  There's no holding back on the carnage she causes; one scene hundreds of soldiers disintegrating around her, and the way she kills Charles is also quite intense.

I will also admit that the film does try to keep character plot threads alive. Wolverine's turmoil over Jean is handled very well, and Jackman delivers an excellent performance as always.  Rogue is having frustration over the lack of intimacy she can have with her boyfriend due to her powers, which makes her the perfect character to make an example for how "the cure" really can be a cure.
Halle Berry is given a bit more to do as Storm, and I probably liked her the best out of all the films here. She takes on a leadership role when Charles is gone, and her new look is pretty sexy.

Newcomers are especially welcome here as well. Ellen Paige is charming as Kitty Pride, Kelsey Grammer is ideal casting for Beast (finally making his big-screen debut), and one of my favorite underrated actors, Ben Foster plays Angel with nice presence but not much to do in terms of the plot. Also, what happened to Nightcrawler?

Being the most expensive film in the franchise to date, and the most financially successful, it's a shame that it isn't also the best.  The elements were all in place to make a really great superhero film, but unfortunately, all we get is a film with big ideas and very little payoff.  It is like Iron Man 2 in many regards, though that film wasn't nearly as ambitious as The Last Stand.  It's also not fair to call this film the worst in the series, though that would have been nice. The X-Men franchise was about to step into some really bad territory with its first attempt to tell a prequel story, in the horribly misshapen cinematic form that is X-Men Origins: Wolverine.