Bryan Singer’s cinematic take on the popular Marvel comic book has a cool, stylish sheenthat’s initially rather impressive. The look probably won’t satisfy the morerabid fans of the drawn version, since the director eschewsany attempt to recreate the appearance of thecharacters from the printed page, instead dressing them up in leather outfits that are closer to the “Matrix” fashion. (At one point a character even jokes about the change.)

But most past efforts to depict comic superheroes on celluloid in their original get-ups have proven pretty disastrous (you
can get away with it when dealing with iconic types like Superman and Batman, but lesser sorts have wound up looking merely ridiculous). And for a while–say, the first twenty minutes or so–Singer’s controversial visual choices, along with his moody, atmospheric approach,spiced with an occasional jolt of nicely cynical humor, workdecently enough. So too does his decision to center the movie on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who’s apparently one of the mostpopular members of the team. The introductorysegment of the film concentrates onthe man-animal-machine’s bleak, solitary existence and his linkup with another mutant, the young, troubled Rogue (Anna Paquin), while wittily sketching the anti-mutant campaign led by McCarthyite Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison)–a distinctly heavy-handed treatment of the tolerance theme, to be sure, but one that (as presented here) is good for a few knowing chuckles, at least to those familiar with no-longer-recent American history.

But, unhappily, after a half-hour or so the larger story kicks in, and the picture goespretty much to pieces; the story moves
into relatively straight comic-book fantasy territory, which is cinematically pretty hopeless cinematic terrain when, as here, it’s playedneither as good-natured spoof (the first “Superman”) or as surrealistic melodrama (the original “Batman”) but rather as
something doggedly, even earnestly, in between, both overly literal and more than a little absurd. We’re introduced to benign
mutant-teacher Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a stolid Picardesque type in a wheelchair, and his cohort of colorless followers (Famke Janssen’s telepathic Dr. Grey, James Marsden’s fire-eyed
Cyclops, and Halle Berry’s well-weathered Storm), and to their nemesis Magneto (Ian McKellen), who’s abetted by the Wookie-like Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), the tongue-lashing Toad (Ray Park),
and the changeling Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). The nefarious Magneto is masterminding a convoluted and largely incomprehensible scheme to transform ordinary humans into mutants in order to end discrimination against him and
his kind, and the tale works its way through a series of action set-pieces (captures, escapes and the like) that are surprisingly poorly choreographed and periodically punctuatedby turgid expository sequences in which both heroes and villains drone on, in arch, deadeningly tedious tones, about their plans and counter-plans.

Throughout Singer maintains a cool, antiseptic visual style, but the young director, who gave his more intimate earlier pictures (“The Usual Suspects,” “Apt Pupil”) some real suspense and menace, proves incapable of imparting anyenergy to the long, desultory dialogue scenes, and he seems to lose control completely when dealing with big action episodes and special effects. The talky sequences are badenough–stilted and dull–but the murky, confused battles, which should be highpoints, are even more disappointing. The worst comes in the climactic showdown at the Statue of
Liberty, no less, which is, from the standpoint of coherence, almost a complete mess, and which generates virtually no tension or excitement. (Compare the nail-biting suspense that Hitchcock wasable to achieve at the same locale in 1942’s”Saboteur,” using only two actors–Robert Cummings and Norman Lloyd–and some cinematic flair.) By the time that the inevitable sequel-promising epilogue comes along, one is filledwith foreboding rather than exhilaration.

Perhaps the picture could have worked not onlywith a helmer more attuned to the material (or better able to shape it into something distinctive and fun), but with a different cast. Stewart is a stentorian bore as Xavier, and McKellen, gifted actor that he is, is nowhere near as magnetic as his moniker suggests; a final conversation between the two falls incredibly flat, with both mouthing the words so soporifically that you practically expect them simply to nod off in mid-sentence. Jackman strikes all the proper poses as Wolverine, capturing the character’s surly persona and tossing off the few good one-liners the script offers in its later stages with aplomb; he’s the only cast member whose career is likely to profit from his presence here. But neither Marsden, Janssen nor Berry makes much of an
impression as his compatriots (indeed, Berry’s line readings are incredibly amateurish). Among the lesser villains, Park probably comes off best as the high-flying, lip-smacking Toad. Mane just stalks about growling occasionally, and Romijn-Stamos, while agreeably curvaceous, has little to do but morph even more frequently than Tom Cruise does in “M:I 2.” Paquin is nicely vulnerable as the tormented Rogue, but her role degeneratesinto damsel-in-distress predictability once the mad-scientist plot takes center-stage.

Devotees of the books will probably find “X-Men”irresistible, but they’re likely to be sadly disappointed by it, and even antagonized by its very different visual style. The uninitiatedwill, on the other hand, find the story ludicrous and Singer’s moody approach insufficiently intriguing to save it. By satisfying nobody the picture is thus likely to become just thelatest failed attempt to build a cinematic franchise on the popularity of a superherocomic. Despite all the effort (and cash) pouredinto it, “X-Men” comes perilously close to being “X-ecrable.”