Phil on Film Index

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Review - X-Men: The Last Stand

Since Bryan Singer’s first X-Men film appeared in 2000, the mutants at the centre of his story have had to deal with constant persecution from the government and the public, as well as fellow mutants who have turned bad under the leadership of Magneto (Ian McKellen). The good mutants, under the stewardship of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), have handled all of these obstacles and come through the other side; but now they are faced with a threat which surely no mutant can overcome. No, not the ‘cure’ which has been developed to suppress the mutant gene; I’m talking about the awe-inspiring, destructive power of Mr Brett Ratner.

After Singer passed on directing the third instalment of this franchise, deciding instead to lend his talents to Superman Returns, the job was handed to Matthew Vaughan but, after a few weeks of production, Vaughan left the project as well. The producers eventually turned to Ratner, one of the most unimaginative, dull-witted hacks currently working in Hollywood, and gave him the task of providing a fitting finale for this franchise. But with Ratner at the helm, and after such a rocky development, it comes as little surprise that X-Men: The Last Stand is such a mess; such a shallow and insignificant waste of time.

The first two X-Men films weren’t perfect, but they were serious and intelligent films made with care and attention. Under all the expected blockbuster action, the films actually made a fair attempt to deal with very real social concerns, making their mutants a metaphor for anyone who has felt marginalized and ostracised by society. The Last Stand does little more than clumsily pay lip service to these underlying themes - with Ratner proving unwilling or unable to handle them - and what’s left on screen is nothing more than an empty spectacle.

The film starts badly, with a ‘20 years ago’ caption leading us into a scene where Xavier and Magneto (both looking like they’ve had a Botox overdose) first recruit the young Jean Grey. Suddenly, we jump forward to ‘10 years ago’ and find a young mutant engaged in a spot of self-abuse in the bathroom - slicing the wings off his back, that is. Then it’s time to hop forward to ‘the not too distant future’ and to catch our motley crew of X-Men engaged in battle with some unseen foe. Two things leap out at us from these opening segments. First of all, the jumpy start anticipates the absurdly choppy nature of the screenplay throughout the film, as it jumps wildly all over the place to little effect; and secondly we instantly learn that Brett Ratner cannot direct action sequences. This opening battle scene is barely comprehensible at times, with Ratner’s hectic approach causing confusion, and failing to inject any sort of tension or bring a tangible sense of threat into play. The first battle is eventually revealed to be just a simulation, a training exercise for rookie X-Men, but already we sense the director is out of his depth.

After a fashion, we are given something resembling a story. The big threat to the mutants’ existence here is a drug which claims to ‘cure’ the mutant gene, developed after a young mutant (Cameron Bright, who has mastered the art of the blank stare) was found whose powers seem to neutralise the power of any other mutant in the vicinity. This development motivates Magneto to lead his mutant army in a revolution against humanity, while everyone at Xavier’s school seems to be wallowing in self-reflection. Cyclops (James Marsden) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are both mourning the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who perished at the end of X2; Rogue (Anna Paquin) quite fancies the idea of a cure which will enable her to touch her boyfriend without killing him; and Storm (Halle Berry) is moping about the place as well, although I didn’t quite catch her reason to be miserable as a sudden sense of apathy came over me whenever the world’s most insipid weathergirl appeared on screen.

Soon the X-Men are roused from their lethargy by the resurrection of Jean Grey, whose personality seems to have taken a turn for the dark side since her death. Her powers far outstrip those of anyone else in the film, and when the time comes for all the mutants to do battle, both Xavier and Magneto understandably want her on their side.

The Last Stand’s set-up could have been fully exploited if Ratner had shown the insight to focus his story on Jean (by far the film’s most interesting character) or Rogue (whose desire for the controversial cure could have given the film some emotional weight), but Ratner never gives The Last Stand any sense of focus and never shows a willingness to engage with the characters’ emotions in the way Singer’s earlier films did. Instead, the film becomes a series of set-pieces, each one bigger, louder and less impressive than the last; and the moments in between the various action scenes seem to be little more than filler material, marking time until something else blows up. The dialogue is utterly banal, and the film never displays a spark of wit, humour or intelligence in its 104 minutes.

Another major problem The Last Stand never manages to overcome is the sheer number of characters which are stuffed into every corner of the film. I always felt that X2 suffered from having too many characters running in too many different directions, but here there are even more mutants to get to grips with; and with so many new arrivals, the actors are inevitably feeding off scraps. Kelsey Grammer (looking like a particularly well-groomed Smurf) struggles to express any sort of personality under his heavy makeup and Vinnie Jones (an unfortunate relic from Vaughan’s short stint as director) is nothing short of embarrassing as Juggernaut.

There are more mutants to meet and greet along the way, but I didn’t catch half of their names and few of them are given any sort of purpose. At one point, Magneto literally announces a number of new members from a checklist, which pretty much sums up the perfunctory nature of these characters’ introductions.

It’s left to the series’ stalwarts to salvage this film, and they give it their best shot. McKellen and Stewart inject the same note of gravitas and class which they lent to the two previous films, but the one real strength of The Last Stand lies in the relationship between Jean and Wolverine. Janssen gives a performance full of intensity and passion as the woman torn between the two sides of her nature, and whatever sense of emotion the film does contain is provided almost exclusively by her. What a pity Ratner squanders this terrific display by making Janssen stand around in the background for so much of the film’s second hour, an observer who is far more compelling than the action in front of us. For his part, Jackman again gives a muscular and sardonic portrayal of Wolverine, and the scenes which these two actors share are comfortably the best The Last Stand has to offer.

What else does it have to offer? Not much. The film builds towards a climax which is spectacular and explosive but completely lacking in any sense of catharsis or consequence. The big set-piece, in which Magneto brings down the Golden Gate Bridge, is hamstrung by poor effects (noticeable throughout) and a remarkable continuity oversight which sees the action on the bridge take place during bright daylight, until the bridge hits the ground and we’re suddenly plunged into darkness. I assume Ratner decided the subsequent explosions would look a lot cooler at night and took the chance that nobody would notice the sudden shift; but this one incident speaks to a carelessness and contempt for the viewer which permeates the entire film.

If this is, as the title indicates, the last in the X-Men series, then it’s a sad way for a once promising franchise to end. When Singer left, it seems he took everything that was good about the X-Men films with him, and The Last Stand is a long slow death rattle. Or is it? Towards the end of the film a number of heavy hints are made regarding the possibility of yet another entry in the franchise; let’s hope these hints come to nothing. One of these late signifiers actually occurs after the end credits, but I’m sure a number of fans will miss it - they’ll already be filing their way slowly out the cinema, shaking their heads at the sad demise of their heroes. The evolution of the X-Men stops here.