||You may well experience a sense of deja-vu while watching Bryan Singer’s sequel to his 2000 comic-book smash--but not merely because the list of characters is pretty much the same and the script, as in the first picture, little more than a string of special-effects set-pieces linked by the thinnest of plots and only slightly deepened by a simplistic anti-prejudice theme. “X2: X-Men United,” as this entry in the franchise is rather laboriously titled, contains stuff strikingly reminiscent of other si-fi sequels, too. One is a “Luke, I’m your father” moment, pretty much lifted from “The Empire Strikes Back,” that’s associated with Wolverine’s desperate search for the truth about his past. But the final climax (there are, of course, several), which depends on a courageous act of self-sacrifice, is equally suggestive of the close of another sequel, 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” You half-expect that the next installment is destined to be called “X3: The Search for....” (I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing the name.)
Otherwise, “X2” is very much like its predecessor: slickly made but overstuffed with characters and excessively busy. The story, which has to do with an obsessed US agent with a hatred of mutants who hatches an elaborate plot to destroy them all, takes a few turns that are intended to surprise, but in actuality it’s a thin concept on which an exhausting array of fights, chases, escapes, explosions and near-disasters has been strung. Those who enjoyed the previous picture will doubtlessly like this one too, as it’s more of the same. If you were disappointed in the original “X-Men,” though, you won’t find “X2” appreciably better.
As “X2” opens, an elaborate assault on the Oval Office by a mysterious mutant gets shadowy “X-Files”-style intelligence operative Stryker (Brian Cox) a presidential carte blanche to go after the hated genetic mistakes by all possible means. Before long an invasion of the Xavier school has brought its wheelchair-bound leader (Patrick Stewart) and his advanced students Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Cyclops (James Marsden)--as well as beginners Rogue (Anna Paquin), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford)--into an alliance with the anti-assimilationist Magneto (Ian McKellan) and his lieutenant Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) to stop Stryker. There are twists, of course: Stryker has a mutant aide Oyama (Kelly Hu) and son (Michael Reid MacKay) whom he controls with some mind-bending drug and intends to use to turn Xavier’s own operation against the wider mutant population. Everything winds up, as in the first picture, in an elaborate series of confrontations (and the obligatory double-crosses, given Magneto’s hostility to Xavier’s hopes for amity between mutants and the non-endowed citizenry) on a big set--not the labyrinthine innards of the Statue of Liberty this time, but the interior of a big dam within which Stryker has built a hidden base of operations. The fate of the mutant population, needless to say, hangs in the balance again.
This narrative is at once surprisingly simple and cluttered with incident. Part of the problem is that there are just too many mutants floating about, and the effort to give them all some screen time makes for needless digressions. All the time, some characters--Storm, Cyclops, Rogue--are shunted to the sidelines and left with little more than walk-ons; Berry, Marsden and Paquin barely register. Even Stewart’s Xavier, though given more footage, has little to do beyond staring knowingly and occasionally issuing portentous pronouncements. The real star, once again, is Jackman as the bad-ass Wolverine--the decision was obviously made to capitalize on the break-out success of the character in the first installment. Much is made of his romantic interest in Dr. Grey (Janssen), which creates turmoil with her boyfriend Cyclops, and his possible past with Stryker; it’s he, too, who will have to duke it out against the equally-gifted Oyama in the end. Meanwhile McKellan camps it up mercilessly as Magneto and Romijn-Stamos revels once more in Mystique’s makeup and physical flips, while Cox does an equal amount of lip-smacking villainy on the other side. Then there’s Ashmore’s Iceman and Stanford’s Pyro, who--along with Paquin’s Rogue--are apparently being carefully groomed as the future of the franchise. Can anyone say “X-Men: The Next Generation”?
There is one element of “X2” that’s new, though, and it’s the best thing about the flick. That’s Alan Cumming as the oddly reptilian teleporter Nightcrawler. Encased in an outfit no less elaborate than Romijn-Stamos’, Cumming manages--as she really doesn’t--to act through the goo, and creates a sympathetic character out of what might easily have been a cardboard figurine. (The effects that depict Nightcrawler’s teleportation are nifty, too.)
Technically “X2” is efficiently done--Guy Hendrix Dyas’ production design and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography are both top-drawer--even if the dark ambiance once again is too gloomy to make for the sort of joyous atmosphere that characterizes the most enjoyable comic-based movies. Editor John Ottman might usefully have trimmed a bit from the picture’s 135-minute running-time, but even at that it’s preferable to his score, which uses Mozart too often and too clumsily. The appearance of a crabbed version of the “Dies Irae” from the Requiem during the assault-on-the-White House opening, for example, is unfortunate, and later on snippets from “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and the piano sonata “for beginners” (K. 545) pop up as well. Leave poor Wolfgang alone.
“X2: X-Men United” is less disappointing than the original movie, simply because expectations are no longer so high; that’s a point in its favor. At the same time, it’s no better than the first installment. If you liked “X-Men,” therefore, this sequel should prove pleasing enough. Otherwise, look elsewhere.