X-Men 2: Hugh Jackman in Coasting Mode

Comic-book sequel can't change its shape.

No need for mutant etiquette: Jackman will slice his own meat, thank you.

No need for mutant etiquette: Jackman will slice his own meat, thank you.

When I heard that Tadpole (Aaron Stanford) had a role in X2 (which opens Friday, May 2 at the Neptune and others), I immediately made a mental list of mutant superpowers he’d bring to this sequel: fluent French, for startershe could tutor the other kids at Mutant Academy, which would surely impress Anna Paquin’s Rogue. His frequent quotations from Voltaire would also wow the sexy older women (Halle Berry’s Storm and Famke Janssen’s Dr. Jean Grey). And his precocious sophistication and wit might help Hugh Jackman’s mangy, manic Wolverine to calm downteach him some decent table manners, for God’s sake. (After all, there’s more to the proper use of cutlery than simply having knives sprout from your knuckles; try eating your soup with those.) Oh, and could he maybe be an amphibian, too?

Alas, Tadpole isn’t even called Tadpole in this sequel to the 2000 comic-book adaptation X-Men. He’s given the mutant handle of Pyro and spends most of this unthrilling but satisfactory summer opener thumbing his lighter like a sullen extra in a ’50s juvenile delinquency flick. (In Rebel Without a Cause, he’d be one of the guys egging on James Dean in the knife-fight scenesecretly hoping his role model might die so that he could succeed him and win Natalie Wood without expending any effort.) Tadpolesorry, Pyrois a bore, and so is Bobby, Rogue’s wimpy teen boyfriend, whose big trick is to turn things to ice (Wolverine, ever the pragmatist, has him chill his soda). Dr. Grey’s laser-eyed beau, Cyclops, is so dull that he’s held hostage for most of the film. When he shows up at the end, you think, “What’s he doing alive? Couldn’t someone have just killed him off-camera?” (In a Star Trek movie, he’d be one of the doomed security officers wearing a red jersey.)

All of which means X2, like the original, is Hugh Jackman’s picture to carry. And he does, very well. Wolverine stubs a cigar in his palm and flashes a little grimace of pleasure, but such tantalizing pathologies are cast aside in favor of the whole save-the-world bit, which drags whenever Jackman’s out of the spotlight. While rival mutant leaders Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Xavier (Patrick Stewart) vie against the John Ashcroft-like Gen. Stryker (Welshman Brian Cox, with an inexplicable Southern lilt to his voice), you just wonder who, in X2‘s WWE universe of freaks and steroid cases, could possibly stand up against Wolverine in a fight. Certainly not Stryker’s swarm of special-forces troopswhom we just cheered in Iraq but who seem fascist now. Nor Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’ shape-changing Mystique, who suggests X2‘s naughtier, untaken R-rating potential when she offers to sleep with Wolverine in the form of whichever heroine he wants. OK, there is one new character who can go blade-to-blade against Wolverine, but director Bryan Singer (back from X-Men) declines to tip that information early and just springs it as a surprise at the end. (Remember why we liked Richard Kiel’s steel-fanged Jaws character in the ’70s 007 flicks: Roger Moore got to take several whacks at him in each installment, but Kiel just kept grinning coming back for more.)

OOPS, I FORGOT the plot. Xavier has some paranormal GPS device to trackand possibly killall the Earth’s humans and/or mutants (there’s a switch or a software patch or something that determines which group gets annihilated; ask your IS people to explain it). Both Magneto and Stryker want it; as a result, Xavier spends half the movie in mind-control la-la land, held in the sway of an imaginary little girl who’s like one of the twins in The Shining. The GPS gizmo resembles some vast planetarium of lost souls (or just an out-of-focus IMAX movie), and X2 makes far too much of it. We just saw better special effects on CNN and Al-Jazeeraand more ass-kicking, which X2 sorely lacks.

There’s a car chase (thank you, Mazda), an aerial dogfight, and enough point-and-click computer stuff to make you think you’re still at the office, but Bond does it better (and with superior table manners). And Bond gets to have sex (which Berry’s presence serves to remind you of), while X2 is all tease, like Rogue. Poor Paquin can’t touch anyone directly lest she give them a fatal case of varicose veinsso what’s she doing in the movie?!? Her big moment, get this, is tremulously landing a plane like Julie Hagerty in Airplane. She serves no more purpose than Icicle Boy (or whatever Bobby is calledIcicle Balls would be more like it). But X2 confuses action with angst and adrenaline with emotional trauma. (Amnesiac Wolverine is still coping with recovered memories of abuse; everyone else is being, like, all shunned by their families, boo-hoo.) X2 has its Matrix-y moments, but you know what? The next two Matrix installments will each have twice as many, plus the benefit of an R rating.

Like The Matrix, like McKellen’s other career annuity, Lord of the Rings, X-Men now looks like, groan, a trilogy. “A war has begun,” we’re told, recalling The Two Towers; and here, too, a CGI-enhanced little freak almost steals the movie. That would be Alan Cumming’s pious, Teutonic, blue-skinned Nightcrawler (crawled straight from Dr. Caligari’s cabinet, I’d say), who almost makes a devilish, club-headed, prehensile tail seem fashionable. Cumming springs through walls like a cross between Schwarzenegger (the accent) and a chimp (the gait); thankfully, he doesn’t throw feces when you stare at him. Oddly, he has no affinity for Romijn-Stamos’ scaly blue ghoul and slithers up to white-haired Berry instead (well, she does have the Oscar, after all), which shows you shouldn’t judge a mutant by his color.

If there must be a third X-Men movie, and if Wolverine is still looking for an opponent worthy of a steel-cage smackdown (which is just where we found him in the original movie), I vote for the Rock. Under duress, his forehead veins throb just like McKellen, Stewart, and Janssen, but he’s actually got the muscle to back up the migraine. And as for Wolverine’s traumatically stolen identity, I think the Rock would say, “Get over it, pal. That’s nothing a good smack with a folding metal chair won’t fix.”


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