When the first X-MEN movie was released, I caught some flak for calling it the year's guilty pleasure. Sure, there were some problems with the movie, but overall, it captured the spirit of the comic books and it featured some strong performances, including those of Hugh Jackman and Anna Paquin. So it wasn't a stretch to say that I was looking forward to the second installment, hoping for a richer, deeper entry into the franchise. While most of the original talent signed up for the sequel (including director Bryan Singer), the cast had undergone a bit of a sea change. Jackman had become a bona fide movie star, Ian McKellen anchored THE LORD OF THE RINGS films, and Halle Berry had won an Academy Award.
The pressure was on Singer and company to top the first film, and in some ways, they have, but at a price. Although there were reports of numerous writers on the first installment, only Michael Hayter received on screen credit. With the second part, Hayter is one of three credited screenwriters (with Michael Doughtery & Dan Harris) and three story writers (with Singer and Zak Penn). That's a lot of writers and unfortunately the results are up there on the big screen. While there is a consistent tone X2: X-MEN UNITED tries too hard to pack in a great deal of story. While you watch it unfold, you get caught up in the many facets of the tale, but once out of the theater, you realize that much of the film is imminently forgettable.
There are just too many figures vying for screen time. Whereas in the first film, the stories dovetailed nicely, in the second, they don't completely come together. Once again, though, Jackman's Wolverine dominates. There's no doubt that this Australian actor has charisma and star quality (he managed to display these characteristics in lesser romantic fare like KATE & LEOPOLD and SOMEONE LIKE YOU.) I missed the interplay with Anna Paquin's Rogue (which was at the heart of the first film), and the attempt to create some tension with the romantic rivalry between Wolverine and Cyclops (James Marsden) over Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) is dissipated with the disappearance of Cyclops for much of the film.
It doesn't help that the role of Storm has been built up as befitting an Oscar-winning actress, but I've never been much impressed with Ms. Berry's thespian abilities and here she barely registers. Even such powerhouses as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are given little to do. Veterans Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, as the shape-shifting Mystique, and Famke Janssen as the telepathic Jean Grey do yeoman work.
Of the new additions to the cast, Brian Cox offers yet another in his gallery of villains, playing right-wing military officer William Stryker who is out to destroy the mutants. Alan Cumming is amusing as the German- accented Nightcrawler, whose allegiance is questionable. Kelly Hu looks terrific but has little to do as Deathstryke, a sort of distaff version of Wolverine. Shawn Ashmore (as Iceman) has nice chemistry with Anna Paquin. Aaron Sandford (the lead in TADPOLE) makes the most of his role as Pyro.
Singer stages some terrific set pieces (as he did in the original), including a raid of the X-Men school by Stryker's militia and a final showdown in an arctic environment. Much has also been made of the scene where Ashmore confesses his secret to his parents (likened by many to the "coming out" scene in so many gay-themed projects). As previously stated, though, there are just too many characters on the crowded canvas, so there's barely time for the audience to do anything more than allow themselves to be swept up in the storytelling. X2 is the equivalent of a theme park ride; it's great fun while you're on the ride, but afterwards, you might only have fleeting memories.
Rating: B- MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sci-fi action/violence, some sexuality and brief language Running time: 133 minutes