Tuesday, 23 May 2006

X -Men: The Last Stand (2006)

In this movie, everyone's a cameo!

The best thing you could do before stepping into the cinema to watch X-men: The Last Stand would be to quickly rewatch X-men and X2 on DVD. Given the 3-year gap between each movie, it’s best to freshen your memory. If the earlier films in the X-men trilogy spent too little time to the background stories of the mutant heroes and villains, the third film assumes its audience have either done their homework or are fans of the Marvel comic book series, and jumps straight into the action when the opening credits fade.

In fact, that’s what I expect a good trilogy to do – leave the introductions, the necessary but tedious explanations to the opening film, the development and build-up to the middle film, so that the final film can concentrate on the payoff. Despite managing to crank up the action (the movie breezes through at 105 minutes, half an hour shorter than its predecessor), the concluding chapter does not gell well with the feel of the previous films, due to the replacement of director and writer Bryan Singer with Brett Ratner.

Signs of the change are apparent as the movie develops: Ratner has a slightly bigger budget, which he largely devotes to scenes that are there to call attention to the expensive special effects and CGI – some of which are gratuitous, jaw-dropping, or even both at the same time. Ratner has made a movie that is designed to engage and impress the eye of the audience, and his decision to focus on visuals is reasonably justifiable.

The death of Jean Grey in X2 segues flawlessly into her resurrection in The Last Stand. The resurrection unleashes Phoenix, the split personality of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen). Yes, you heard that right. Ratner radically rewrites many characters in the movie even when adapting them from the original comic books. The mentally unstable Phoenix is the most powerful mutant on the planet, surpassing the strengths of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen). That provides plenty of excuses for dramatic special effects set-pieces that occur when Jean Grey loses control of her wild half.

Providing the other half of the rudimentary plot is the discovery of a cure for mutants. As a result of a botched operation by Magneto and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), a pharmaceutical company pre-emptively announces its discovery of a permanent cure for mutants. That’s a intriguing dilemma for all mutants: should they line up in droves to become normal again and to escape daily persecution, discrimination, fear and distrust from the rest of humanity, or insist – in the words of Storm (Halle Berry, still underutilised) – that there is nothing to be cured, that being a mutant isn’t a sickness? Or should mutants rise up, destroy the cure by any means possible because, as Magneto suggests, this is not a cure but a genocidal tool to wipe out mutants?

Alas, Brett Ratner is not Bryan Singer. These moral and ethical themes would’ve been a natural progression from Singer’s use of the civil rights movement, racial discrimination, bigotry and political witch hunts to create parallels between the real world and the mutant universe, but the spectre of a genocide masquerading as a cure for a “medical condition” is quickly glossed over. That’s a major disappointment, keeping in mind how Singer worked these heavy themes and social issues into the first two X-men movies, and showed how their impact on the lives of the main characters. And that’s why the most powerful and best-written scene in the entire trilogy belongs to X2, where Iceman (Shawn Ashmore, who returns for the final film) comes out as a mutant to his parents.

On another note, it’s entirely possible that this movie has even more new mutant heroes and villains that X2. So much more that even the long-awaited appearances of Beast (Kelsey Grammer, underutilised and given no witty lines for a witty character) and Angel (Ben Foster) blur into the storm of cameos and walk-on appearances.

While the script and dialogue clearly don’t measure up to the standards of the previous film, The Last Stand still does some things right. Rebecca Romijn returns in the movie as Mystique, with her delicious blue stick-on beads, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine has an obligatory shirtless scene, and Ian McKellen raises his eyebrows, waves his hands, and waggles his fingers so charmingly as he fights off soldiers and fellow mutants. Too bad he doesn’t have any wicked lines this time round, though.

On its own, The Last Stand is a perfectly acceptable comic book adaptation, whose only flaw is its over-reliance on special effects and eye candy, which take away some of the emotional impact of the final scenes. It tells a remarkably coherent tale compared to stinkers like Catwoman and Elektra, but considering its place in a movie trilogy, The Last Stand comes as a mild disappointment – it’s better than X-men the movie, but weaker than X2.

The Last Stand will eventually be seen not as a concluding episode of a great trilogy, but as a weak but necessary “middle movie” paving the way for the inevitable Mystique, Wolverine and Magneto spin-off movies.

And one more thing: do sit through the credits at the end for a special scene.

First published at incinemas on 25 May 2006

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