Oh how the mighty have fallen. X-MEN: THE LAST STAND is the third installment in what until now has been a sterling franchise and its failings are an affront to what has come before. To be sure, the fine philosophical underpinnings, one of the series’ hallmarks, are still there, but with a new director, Brett Ratner, taking over from Bryan Singer, who also took his writers with him, the mythos doesn’t so much soar as flail. It’s all the more frustrating for having such a fine premise, considering as it does questions of medical ethics and the political implications of such words as “cure” and “disease.”
A father, heartbroken to discover that his son is a mutant, vows to find a cure for the condition. Being a wealthy and brilliant man, and this being the world of fantasy, he sets up shop on a refurbished Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and develops a potion that can change the mutants, starting with his son, into regular humans. Worldwide headlines ensue, as well as worldwide controversy.
For some, like Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose power kills anyone that she touches, it’s a blessing, but for the others, the question is equally simple, as in why would they want to give up what makes them unique. It’s a worldview that even Angel (Ben Foster), whose father is the inventor of the drug, comes to appreciate. The scene of him as a kid trying to file off his wings and leaving only bloody stumps that he shamefully tries to hid from his horrified father, disgusted not by the wound, but by the mutation, is a powerful moment, one worthy of the first two films. Would that there were more scenes like that.
Arch-villain Magneto (Ian McKellen) uses this new medical discovery to rally the mutants with incendiary rhetoric. Making reference to
his own childhood as a Jew in Nazi Germany, he plays upon the natural suspicions the mutants have, gathering an army of new true believer in his cause to do what arch-villains always do, wreak havoc and attempt a hostile takeover. Naturally, the X-Men, led by stalwart if wheelchair-bound Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), spring into action
The parallel plot has Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) returning from what everyone assumed was certain death at the end of X-2. Like many people who have experienced a near-death experience, she’s much changed. The mind control Xavier has been using to keep her immeasurable psychic powers under control is gone, and Jean, despite lip-locking reunions with both Cyclops (James Marsden) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), is losing touch with reality as even the mutants understand it.
The writing is episodic in the very worst sense of that word, the directing is at best uninspired, and Janssen wears a red wig of dubious merits while spending much the film acting like a well-dressed zombie in Goth-lite finery. The other actors do what they can, and fortunately most of them are more that up to the task. That’s particularly true of Jackman who, as always, struts with the assurance of the alpha male who knows he’s the top dog in whatever room he is in, and the charisma of someone who is so totally pleased with himself that he has nothing to prove to anyone. Stewart brings his natural gravitas and plummy intonation that gives more credibility to his lines that they might otherwise deserve. Paquin, Ashmore, Stanford et als have the right mix of teen exuberance and angst that rings true even if what they are dealing with is super powers instead of acne and with whom they will go to the prom. As for McKellan, commanding presence and divine elocution he has in spades, but without a sure hand to guide him and dialogue that is stale and lifeless, he treads the far shores of hamminess with occasional lunges that go over the top and then some.
This is the installment designed to introduce new characters from the X-Men universe, and as the clunky writing takes its toll, there is a truncated feel to the process. Some characters, including Angel and Cyclops (James Marsden) get very short shrift, while others, including Leech (Cameron Bright), the mysterious mutant boy in residence at the Institute on Alcatraz Island is basically a prop with no back story and precious little in the way of personality. Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), she of the blue-scaled physique and killer curves, is all but dispensed with in a plot twist designed to show how cliquish mutants can be. Halle Berry, returning as Storm only under the condition of having her character beefed up a bit, gets more screen time than the aforementioned cast, and Storm gets a promotion, but she’s given a part with all the complexity of binary code. She does look very good in the cape, though.
On the other hand there is a great deal of Beast (Kelsey Grammar) tricked out in fur the shame shade of blue as his eyes), a scientist and diplomat with a tendency to go on berserker streaks of anger. It’s not that there isn’t a certain piquant logic in casting someone with one of the most cultivated voices in the business as a Beast with the soul of a poet, but Grammar should have used a stunt double for the action scenes to convey any real sense of unbridled rage. That he’s also saddled with lines such as “Oh my stars and garters” does not help matters.
At least the special effects are nice. It makes up for the action sequences that fail to get the adrenalin pumping. Angel’s white-feathered wings unfurled exuberantly are a captivating sight. The centerpiece shot of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge being re-routed by a very determined Magneto is a suitable expression of his megalomania run amok and the creaking sound effects are whiz-bang nifty.
Alas, nifty is not the word to describe X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. What should have been a springboard for the series is instead a quagmire that not even a mutant of the highest caliber can extricate him- or herself from.