Following on from the success of 'X1' in 2000 Brian Singer, now with a much bigger budget, released the second part of his Marvel X-Men trilogy in 2003. As 'X1' was primarily a “beginnings” movie it lacked slightly in the action department, with Singer spending a considerable portion of the on screen time explaining the background story of the X-Men and introducing the characters. With the main X-Men contingent and their struggle against the increasing threat of a war against the humans established, I was hoping that 'X2' would jump straight into the action and expand on the core characters from the first movie.
The majority of the cast from the first movie reprise their roles with the addition of some new faces. Patrick Stewart ('Star Trek: The Next Generation') is back as Dr. Charles Xavier; Sir Ian McKellen ('Lord of the Rings triology') plays Eric Lensherr (“Magneto”); Hugh Jackman ('Australia') plays Logan (“Wolverine”); Halle Berry ('Monsters Ball') plays Ororo Munroe (“Strom”) and Rebecca Romijn plays Mystique. We've also got James Marsden as Scott Summers (“Cyclopse”); Bruce Davison as Senator Kelly; Famke Janssen (“Goldeneye”) as Dr. Jean Grey; Shawn Ashmore as Bobby Drake (“Iceman”) and Maria D'Ancanto ('The Piano') as Rogue. Joining the already stellar cast are Brian Cox ('Nuremberg') as Col. William Stryker; Alan Cumming ('Spy Kids') as Kurt Wagner (“Nightcrawler”); Kelly Hu ('Cradle 2 the Grace) as Lady Deathstrike and Aaron Stanford as John Allerdyce (“Pyro”). When you look at the wealth of talent that is on display here it really seems as though Singer has assembled a dream cast for this movie.
Right from the opening scenes it's evident that Singer has made the decision to up the ante for the second X-Men outing. We're treated to a glorious sequence in which one of the new mutants, Nightcrawler, makes his first appearance. Nightcrawler is one of the more interesting mutants from the world of the X-Men and an on/off member of Xavier's team in the comic books. He is a teleporter (he has the ability to teleport himself, his clothing and a small amount of additional mass) with superhuman agility, indigo in colour (although in 'X2' his comic book fur is absent), has a prehensile tail and is a devout Catholic with strong faith even though he resembles the devil somewhat! He has scarred his body with angelic scripture, one symbol for every sin. Abandoned after his birth (his mother was actually Mystique but Singer makes no reference to this in the movie) he joined the Munich state travelling circus before later becoming an outcast. With these exciting mutant abilities at his disposal, Singer has created one of the most thrilling and inventive opening sequences ever committed to celluloid. Nightcrawler uses his teleporting skills and super-human agility to penetrate Whitehouse security and makes an attempt on the President's life. He moves with lighting speed and repeatedly disappears /reappears in the corridors (over 40 times) outside the Oval Office, disarms 20 or so guards (with incredible acrobatics) and knocks them unconscious. The style and manner in which Singer presents this new mutant is superb and the CGI effects (which reputedly cost $1 million), which depict Nightcrawler teleporting, while leaving a residual vapor indigo “ghost” of himself (which quickly disappears again into an unseen vacuum), are still very impressive today. With this threat on the Presidents life (by a mutant) it seems that Magneto and his loyal “Brotherhood” will have their war after all.
While this assassination attempt is taking place everyone's favourite mutants, the X-Men, are on a school outing. We're reintroduced to Rogue and Iceman who, along with their new fiery friend Pryo (who appeared briefly in the first movie), get themselves into an altercation with some teenager civilians. Xavier intervenes to make his first appearance in the second movie, this time getting to demonstrate some of his more impressive mutant capabilities, as he “freezes” the entire crowd allowing his students and the X-Men to escape unnoticed. Obviously aware that following the attempt on the Presidents life it would be pertinent to keep their mutant identities concealed, Xavier and the X-Men retreat to their “School for Gifted Youngsters” sanctuary. Concerned that a powerful new mutant has sided with Magneto, Xavier uses his immensely powerful computer, Cereboro, to amplify his physic abilities and locates Nightcrawler. He then sends Storm and Jean to intercept the assassin and return with him for questioning. He also arranges for Cyclopse and himself to visit with “an old friend” (Magneto) with the hope of recovering information regarding the attack on the President, which has put the entire mutant population's safety at risk.
In the midst of this excitement Wolverine also makes his return, following an unsuccessful expedition to Alkali Lake, Canada to try and unlock the memories of his disturbing past. Wolverine, following psychotherapeutic sessions with Xavier, travelled to Alkali Lake to try and uncover some clues as to what made him into the savage animal he is today. Having more or less deserted the X-Men at the end of first movie to pursue his past, Storm, Jean and Cyclopse don't hang out the bunting on his return but rather inform him that he is on babysitting duties as they begin preparation for their respective missions.
Storm and Jean travel to an abandoned church where Nightcrawler has set up refuge. He is frightened by the arrival of these unwelcome guests and not overly receptive to their request for an interview. Storm uses her ability to control the weather to reveal the invisible assassin's position while Jean uses her powerful telekinetic powers to isolate him. It transpires, following some physic probing by Jean that Nightcrawler was not in control of himself when he attacked the President. Somehow, someone was controlling his actions. Cyclopse and Xavier visit with Magneto, who is still housed in his plastic prison. Xavier questions him and quickly deduces that Magneto has divulged information about Cereboro (which he helped Xavier to build) and the location of the X-Men's base of operations to a certain William Stryker. As poisonous gas is pumped into Magneto's cell, both Xavier and Magneto fall unconscious.
Stryker is a military scientist and former Black Ops commando who is secretly waging a war against the mutants. He despises the mutant race and believes, like many, that their mutation is an affliction that should be cured or eradicated rather than celebrated. His own son, Jason, is a mutant who at one time attended Xavier's school, with his father believing that he could be “cured”. Following an explanation from Xavier that he could not “cure” Jason but only help him to grow and control his powers, Stryker removed his son from Xavier's tutelage and grew frustrated with his son's situation and the rapidly spreading mutant plague. Jason has the ability to plant illusions in the minds of others and thus can control them. Furious with his parents over their efforts to relieve him of his powers he plants illusions in their minds to punish them. This act ultimately leads to his mother taking a drill to her own skull in an attempt to end the illusions which are slowly driving her insane. Stryker later gave his own son a lobotomy to keep him under control. Attaining a position high in government, Stryker has the president's ear and continues his research to find a solution to the mutant problem and has secretly being building a case for an anti-mutant conspiracy. Stryker has been involved in many ethically unacceptable projects, such as his experimentation on mutants to expand their capabilities and also to find ways to control them. Stryker also has an unusual personal assistant, a young woman called Lady Deathstrike. In the comic books the two are lovers and it was she who rescued Stryker from prison (again this is not mentioned in 'X2'). Without really any explanation as to where she came from her role in this movie is the brain washed personal assistant/bodyguard of Stryker. In the comic books Deathstrike is a Japanese cyborg whose primary goal is the assassination of Wolverine. She has battled Wolverine plenty of times in the pages of Marvel fiction and with her inclusion in 'X2' one can only guess who she will face......
Stryker has access to Magneto's prison and has been using a serum developed from his son's cerebrospinal fluid to control other mutants. With parts stolen from Xavier and knowledge leeched from Magneto, he builds an exact replica of Cereboro in his underground bunker at Alkali Lake. Using Jason to poison Xavier's mind, Stryker now has this immensely powerful mutant under his complete control and plans to use Cereboro II to eradicate all mutant life on earth. The other X-Men, having learned of Xavier's capture, regroup to formulate a way to free their leader and mentor. They are, quite surprisingly, joined by Magneto (whom Pyro begins to admire) and Mystique (who uses some serious cunning to spring her master from his plastic prison). Magneto informs them of Stryker's diabolical plans and the existence of Cereboro II. With this temporary alliance for the greater good, the X-Men (including the more junior members) and Magneto/Mystique, mobilise to thwart Stryker and to once again ensure that the delicate balance of mutant/human harmony is maintained.
'X2' is a highly stylized presentation with Singer using some novel concepts to put the mutants' various capabilities to use. Aside from the obvious impressive nature of Nightcrawler's attack sequence, Magneto also has numerous opportunities to show off his abilities such as his uber-cool escape from his plastic prison (which really can only be described as iconic); Wolverine gets to use his claws more than in his last outing and is more physically active in general; Pyro chucks a few fireballs around the place; Xavier's powers are a key factor in the main plot and we get to see how powerful he actually is; Mystique has more opportunities to morph and of course Jean opens a whole new chapter on her abilities. These few examples make the point that there is a lot more action in this installment, far more than in the first movie. There are numerous standout action sequences where we get to see the aforementioned mutants in action. As discussed Nightcrawler's sequence really does steal the show but all the other set pieces can hold their own, even against this stellar opener. The assault on Xavier's school gives Singer the opportunity to demonstrate some of the mutant students' powers, which also features a very physical performance from Wolverine. The jet chase sequence is edge of the seat stuff as Jean struggles to keep the Bluebird under control as Strom calls down howling tornado's on the pursuing jets. The Alkali Lake finale (which lasts for about 30mins or so) features all of the mutants in action with a fantastically well thought out fight sequence between Lady Deathstrike and Wolverine, both using their adamantium implants and resistance to injury to inflict as much damage on each other as the PG-13 rating will allow. All of these sequences contain a very high standard of CGI and other special effects which still look both immaculate and impressive today.
Aside from the main plot focusing on Stryker's quest to eradicate all mutants, Singer also includes a number of juicy subplots to keep the audience interested during the more subdued moments. Iceman/Rogue's relationship reaches new levels intimacy and difficulty, as does the love triangle between Jean/Wolverine/Cyclopse. There's also a tiny hint of a possible spark between Storm and Nightcrawler. Wolverine finally gets closure on his creation (but not on his past) and grows closer to the X-Men and their cause. Magneto's army gains strength, with the defected Pyro joining his “Brotherhood”, and we see that he will more than likely return with larger numbers following the dissolution of his temporary alliance with the X-Men. The main sub-plot, however, revolves around Dr. Jean Grey and the hidden power awoken in her psyche. As the movie progresses she is slowly overwhelmed by “The Phoenix” (a powerful cosmic entity) who dwells within her. There are a number of instances in the movie where she performs feats that are well beyond her normal capabilities. As she concentrates to gather her will her eyes swim with fiery power and she seems only barely able to control the energy that erupts from deep in her sub consciousness. The power that the Phoenix is infusing in Jean is so great that she actually begins hearing future echoes of events that have not yet come to pass (listen closely to her episode during the opening museum scene). As Jean narrates the monologue at the close of the movie (which is incidentally the same monologue that Xavier narrates at the beginning of the first movie) we get to see the watery outline of a huge winged shape beneath Alkali Lake. It seems that the focus for the third X-Men outing will not be on the ever popular Wolverine.
Singer has basically taken every aspect of the original X-Men movie and improved on it. We jump straight into the action, which features more of the mutants' special abilities, and is more intense. All of the X-Men get to use their powers in combat situations this time round, with a Berserker rage from Wolverine featuring in one of the scenes. There are also a couple of new mutants to get to grips with and the standard of the special effects has been improved. The entire presentation has a much grander feel to it with a more intricate and immersive plot, wherein the brewing mutant war becomes volatile. Even the actors seem much more comfortable in their respective roles and really have grown into their characters. Jackman in particular, who gained 20 pounds of muscle since the last time, really seems to have developed his acting abilities as he continues his ascension of the Hollywood A-List. McKellen, Cox and Stewart add maturity and integrity to their characters. Famke Janssen, who gets a lot more on screen time this time round, also admirably holds her own against more experienced cast members, as do the majority of the cast. Everyone involved in making 'X2' possible seems to have realised that 'X1' was a phenomenal success and were willing to step up their game for round two. Singer directs with the same exciting, yet commanding technique, which really seems to get the best from all involved on the project. The attention to detail is also immense, with repeated viewings to fully appreciate all the nuances that Singer and the production team have introduced. For example, the RX-8 which features has “X's” printed on its alloys; Jean wears a jacket with a phoenix on the back of it; Stryker's son Jason is a reference to the Jason Wyngarde (“Mastermind”) Marvel character; there's a picture of the proposed experimentation on Arch-Angel in Stryker's bunker and Magneto at one point states “When will these people learn to fly”, which is a reference to Rogue and Jean's ability to fly in the comic books. Singer also tries to include as many mutants from the word of the X-Men as he possibly can. Kitty Pryde, another regular face in the comic books, makes an appearance as she disappears through the floor of one of the bedrooms. We also get to see Colossus in all his metallic glory (although he doesn't really do a whole lot) and there's a television appearance featuring Hank McCoy (“Beast”). All three play larger parts in the third X-Men installment. Singer also makes a reference to a huge number of Marvel mutants which are listed on Lady Deathstrike's computer. Although all these facets may seem trivial, they none the less show that Singer has done his homework and their inclusion is a respectful nod to the comic books origins of his two successful X-Men movies. These all show that this was not another movie where the mantra was to get it over and done with. Singer has passion for this project and has obviously invested a lot of time into making it as perfect as possible. This has only reaffirmed my respect for Singer as a director (we won't mention 'Superman Returns'!).
'X2' really comes very close to perfection as a superhero movie. It's got it all, a fantastically clever and fast paced central plotline which boasts some very exciting and incredibly inventive action set pieces. Once again the base concept of the X-Men characters being outcasts of society is realistic enough to allow the audience to identify with their plight. The mutant action and PG-13 rating are pushed to their limits with a body count totaling 26, catering for the older generation of comic book fans. There are also numerous sub-plots which have all got their own merits, with plenty of splashes of humor throughout. The acting and special effects are spot on and the finale hints that the third outing will be even more exciting and explosive (unfortunately it wasn't!). All in all 'X2' comes very highly recommended and for my money is one of the greatest superhero movies of all time.
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