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Published: Thursday, 5/25/2006

Movie review: X-Men: The Last Stand **

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The clawed Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). The clawed Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).
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Brett Ratner, young movie director, fanboy pariah, I'm sorry. I do not know you.

The comic-book obsessives on the Internet who detest you so much - the Marvel fundamentalists who shredded their garments and beat their breasts over your appointment to the final installment of the X-Men franchise, helmed until now by the dark lyricism of Bryan Singer - they do not know you, either.

If that hasn't stopped them from discovering every variation of your name possible - "Brat" and "Rat" being at the mild end of the scale - my apologies. At one time I might have stood with them, outraged that a filmmaker of no particular ambition or finesse, the guy responsible for Chris Tucker vehicles like Rush Hour and forgettable Hannibal Lecter prequels like Red Dragon, would be entrusted with a finale that had so much at stake, that demanded the oomph of cataclysmic happenings, earth-rocking twists, sociopolitical metaphor, operatic drama, lyricism ...

Enough already.

X-Men: The Last Stand, purportedly the closing movie of the successful series, opens tonight with a handful of screenings. Let the geeks judge for themselves.

Brett Ratner, you might have been handed the keys to Nerd Heaven - Singer left to revive the Superman movies, taking his X-Men screenwriters with him - and yet I am not so naive as to believe one man is responsible for the failure of a summer blockbuster.

Grown men who live in their parents' basements suggest you eat bags of broken glass, but then some folks can be so crude.

Yourself, for instance.

I have nothing against you.

But they're right:

It's your fault. Obviously, it is.

Not Frasier Crane's. Kelsey Grammer, another object of geekish hand-wringing, joins the cast as the blue-hued man-monkey Beast, a kind of diplomat between the White House and the mutants. Buried beneath a mound of makeup, Grammer at least nails the balance between gravitas and knowing silliness any superhero picture demands.

You, Brett Ratner, do not.

Worse, arrogance peeks in.

You could not resist the coarse urging to show a supervillain without a shred of her costume. (Naked, that is.) You, for no discernible reason, have at least two scenes where women are called the kind of derogatory lingo heard in gangsta rap. (I gather that's your idea of "edge.") You provide no wows, but showing a lack of imagination, dig into the Terminator movies for a vision. You, with a subplot about a mutant with the power to remove other mutant powers, cast the very same creepy kid (Cameron Bright) that other movies have used in the last year or two.

You are an efficient taskmaster who rushes scenes (the film is a half hour shorter than the previous installment, but has a plot so momentous it should be an hour longer); who does not understand well-ordered scenes give a story natural momentum (the first five minutes happen "20 years ago," then "10 years ago," then "in the not-too-distant future"); who sweats when navigating the line between poignancy and thrills (which Singer understands in his bones) - who doesn't get, uh, elegance.

Consider the difference between cleverness and a sledgehammer: In X2: X-Men United, still a superior example of comic-book adapting, there is pop poetry in a prison break. Ian McKellen, playing the alloy-manipulating, wayward Magneto, sucks the iron from a guard's bloodstream and rearranges the molecules into a hovering platform, floating away to freedom.

In The Last Stand, gearing up for the final battle among bad mutants, the X-Men, and the military, Magneto rips the Golden Gate Bridge in two, creating a bridge from where he's standing to Alcatraz island. Admittedly, it's the single coolest special effect in the picture. But come on, Magneto - that's just plain lazy. (At one point a bad mutant, who apparently didn't spot the tourist brochures at his hotel, wonders, "How do we get to the island?")

The premise of the comics and the films is that, through evolution, a genetic race of mutants has emerged. Some control metal. Some make ice cubes. Some make campfires. Others read minds, or drain life out of people, or pass through walls, or hammer through barriers, or carry around porcupine complexions. They've become a team, including the clawed Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and laser-beam man Cyclops (James Marsden); the farm team, the AAA mutants, are trained at an elite school in New York run by benign Professor X (embodied by Patrick Stewart, given an undignified send-off).

The first two films did a pretty smart job of explaining how a world with mutants would operate. There would be fear, of course. Intolerance. (Even within their own race.) Though their powers are not equal - "class five" mutants stare at people and make them explode, "class two," I guess, know a good card trick - most mutants coexist surprisingly well. One woman (Halle Berry, in the flicks) understands intimately, as they say in the Midwest (and Halle is from Cleveland), if you wait long enough, the weather will change.

She'll change it for you.

It's the evil breakaway strain of mutant-kind, the testy militant faction - the one without a member possessing the power to turn lemons into lemonade - who make hay. Magneto is their leader and being a Nazi concentration camp survivor, he instinctively suspects a mutant genocide is around the corner.

If I'm overexplaining, if it sounds like you've heard this before in the previous films, that's because it's all explained once again, and the feeling we're heading over tired ground hangs heavy. There are cool mutants who run into things real good (Juggernaut, for example); and the plot seems ripe for wrapping up the series, with the political and psychological hallmarks of classic Marvel nicely addressed.

But Ratner treats giant events (and even the death of major characters) without any real urgency. The story involves a "cure for mutation." Since the great Marvel superheroes (Spider-Man, Hulk) were always about the tension between being an outcast and hanging onto one's humanity, the hook this time is the best yet.

Rogue (Anna Paquin) must decide between being special and being ordinary. So do they all. After dying in the first film, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) reappears as her alter ego, lashing out at the men who want to use her or tame her. There's the young mutant who tries clipping his wings and the embarrassed father who develops the cure to get him "normal again."

But the political and social implications are both more pronounced than ever in this third film - not for nothing it takes place in the center of protest-culture, San Francisco - and yet so lacking in momentousness, even the social resonance starts to seem thin and chintzy. Ratner is juggling too many balls and the guy is no juggler. But then, some style might have been nice: X-Men: The Last Stand looks as if it were shot in the blinding light of a sitcom set. Magneto and Co. arrive in a suburban subdivision for a rumble. They look ridiculous in their cheap helmets and capes and posturing. Notice the kids playing soccer in the street behind them who barely notice.

Magneto declares:

"It's time to end this war."

You think:

What, in that cape?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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