"Where am I?" Having apparently been killed, self-martyred, in a climactic flood when we last saw her, Famke Janssen now has good reason to ask Hugh Jackman whether she's woken up in heaven or hell. I wouldn't want to make her character mad (call her Hurricane Jean), but the answer is that she's in just another superhero sequel: X-Men: The Last Stand. Meaning no deliverance, no punishment, more like a purgatory of computer effects and bland supporting players (all quirk, no character). One trilogy ends, and another product cycle is likely to begin in a few years, whenever they figure out how to assemble a new Wolverine story line out of Stan Lee's old Marvel Comics vault.
X-Men: The Last Stand Opens at Cinerama and other theaters, Fri., May 26. Rated PG-13. 104 minutes.
Jean (Janssen) and Wolverine (Jackman) have a mutant kind of thing between them, which is pretty much like your ordinary unconsummated human romance, except that anything steamier than a brief kiss by the copier would be fatal. This new, mysteriously reanimated Jean Version 2.0, while locking lips with Wolverine, suddenly develops a very bad complexion—lines and veins and pallor that no amount of Botox and foundation could disguise. It's not that Janssen, a former model and Bond girl, suddenly looks old, but that her desire is engorged with death and destruction. She's hot, but she's also Kiss Me Deadly on a global scale. And on a cellular level. Wolverine pulls away because he doesn't like the taste of her DNA—a hint of rose petals, a bouquet of the apocalypse.
This love match has two chaperones: Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who advocates control of mutant superpowers; and his friendly rival, Magneto (Ian McKellen), who tells the reborn Jean, "I want you to be what you are. As nature intended." That sounded better in the first two X-Men movies, where hormonal teens could identify with heroes not quite in control of their morphing bodies. (There, we also learned Wolverine's origins, endured many gay and Holocaust analogies—we can't help it if we were born different!—and set up the gentlemanly grudge between Magneto and Xavier.) Yet Last Stand doesn't give us much chance to distinguish among the young residents of Xavier's mutant academy. My favorite among them is Kitty (Hard Candy's Ellen Page), who blithely shifts her molecules to scoot through walls. (Use doors? What-ever.) The movie's best scene has her chased by a mutant goon (Vinnie Jones in an old Hulk suit), feminine finesse against brick-smashing power.
As for the rest of the cast, Frasier—that is, Kelsey Grammer—turns up as a hairy blue mutant-bureaucrat, comfortable in the Oval Office except for his problem with shedding. Anna Paquin's back as the girl who can't touch her crush (Icicle Boy) without killing him. Halle Berry lopes around in her white-haired fright wig, still atoning for Catwoman. There's a buff angel boy (Ben Foster) to provide gay subtext now that original director Bryan Singer has departed. Rebecca Romijn's blue, scaly shape-shifting babe is enjoyably reptilian and nasty in a few scenes ("I don't answer to my slave name!"), but then she's gone. Or neutered, along with those darted by government "cure weapons"—one prick, and those superpowers vanish. You're just another schlub looking for a seat on the subway, instead of surfing on top of it.
The plot is pure identity politics: Should mutants heed Stewart and assimilate, even take the state antidote ("Since when did we become a disease?"), or follow McKellen's separatist path into the Vancouver woods? His angry band of pierced, tattooed mutants appears to have taken a wrong turn from Burning Man. Although I suspect they're castoffs from The Matrix's city of Zion: One porcupine-y guy sneers at a human, "Do we look like we need your help?" Well, yes—to get an office job and house in the suburbs, those facial tattoos have got to go.
That's the thing about the clean-cut kids at Stewart's mutant boarding school: They may be gifted, but they still have the square's desire to get along. Only Wolverine, who doesn't shave and smokes cigars, retains a bit of rebel charisma (and the picture needs more of that), but Last Stand, like any summer movie, emphasizes mass entertainment—the same box-office cure we're all forced to take. Adapting a comic that celebrated the special, the extraordinary, the film is anything but.
Director Brett Ratner has no gift for nuance or character development; scenes don't play organically so much as just stop at the bottom of the page. He's happiest when the rival mutants finally hurl cars and fireballs at one another on Alcatraz—that is, when Last Stand becomes just another spectacle of mindless destruction. The scholarly debate between Stewart and McKellen is forgotten; so, too, is talk of bioethics and politics. (Grammer even invokes the dreaded "slippery slope," like he's on Meet the Press or something.)
We puny, boring humans are mostly shoved out of the way during this inter-minority squabble, though it's broadcast, of course, on the Fox News Channel. (The movie is produced by Rupert Murdoch's Twentieth Century Fox.) That's why I found myself wishing for a regular fellow strong enough to stand up to these mutants. Bill O'Reilly would be just the right guy to argue against Grammer's calm, blue-state (and I really mean blue) rhetoric of tolerance and reason. "Just who do you think you mutants are, asking for all these special rights? Allowing mutants to marry would threaten the very institution of marriage. We need to stop mutants from crossing the border and taking good U.S. jobs. Don't you mutants go to church? And why do you mutants hate America so much?"
I'd gladly pay to see that Last Stand, but this one should easily earn more than snores like The Da Vinci Code and Poseidon. There's a comfortable, nonthreatening conformity to its Hollywood agenda: With or without fists that sprout metal claws, everyone just longs to be average, to line up for the same movie. So it is that a mutant learns to keep his head down and pass for normal in human society. During such diminished times, this also will pass for entertainment.