Despite some deliciously hammy acting, a once-promising franchise lurches to a dead end. Hmmm ... does anybody smell a Ratner?
Every superhero legend is the story of a curse, none more so than Marvel Comics' X-Men. Their mythology is all about the isolation and misunderstanding that they experience as the next link in the evolutionary chain. Their outcast status taps directly into the self-conscious, where-do-I-fit-in, when-will-I-be-loved anxieties that torment most adolescents (and a fair number of adults). Director Bryan Singer's sensitivity to that subtext made the first two X-Men films surprisingly resonant and soulful for comic-based summer extravaganzas.
Now the series has been handed off to Brett Ratner, whose marching orders appear to be: "Forget subtlety. Let's blow things up!" While Singer ("The Usual Suspects") is adept at juggling large casts of three-dimensional characters, Ratner (who gave us the "Rush Hour" Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker action comedies) makes shallow, unimaginative bang-ups.
As he proved in "Red Dragon," his pedestrian prequel to "Silence of the Lambs," Ratner can't ride even the sturdiest coattails. His utterly unnecessary "X-Men: The Last Stand" is well-titled, because it brings the trilogy to an exhausted dead end.
For those arriving late, the X-Men are a team of mutants led by Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a kindly telepath who runs a school for "gifted youngsters." Their special talents include laser vision, telekinesis and summoning lightning. Xavier coaches his students on the proper use of their abilities and presses mistrustful non-mutants for tolerance. His longtime friend turned philosophical foe Magneto (Ian McKellen) leads a militant band of mutants ready to strike out against humankind in self-defense.
Following outbursts of human-mutant and mutant-mutant conflict in the first two films, an uneasy truce prevails until a drug company produces a cure for mutantism. Some X-Men see the drug as a godsend; Magneto and his sect view it as an extermination program and mount a revolt.
Meanwhile, romance swirls. Invulnerable brawler Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and human death ray Cyclops (James Marsden) pursue their mutual crush on Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who is not as dead as she appeared at the climax of the previous film. Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose merest touch is deadly, can't hook up with frigid-fingered Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). Instead of appearing heartsick with yearning, the actors mope as if they have the flu.
The film's more esteemed thespians bring all the fun. Kelsey Grammer, whose plummy diction gives him away even under makeup resembling an indigo shag carpet, joins the cast as Dr. Hank McCoy, a k a the Beast. The joke is that he's a placid, scholarly windbag who, sufficiently provoked, kicks butt like nobody's business. His eventual outburst has the cartoon silliness of Yoda's light-saber fight.
McKellen offers a fine balance of earnestness and flippancy as the Malcolm X of mutants. Who else could wear Magneto's gladiator helmet without inspiring scornful laughter? Yet he has fun with the ponderous role. After uprooting the Golden Gate Bridge, he tosses a winking glance at a thunderstruck motorist, hitting a comic high point that the script's dull dialogue never equals.
The film offers some genuine surprises, bumping off more major characters than fans might expect, and its last-reel battle between mutant and human armies generates some cheaply satisfying moments. But for the most part, it is assembled in a painfully by-the-book manner. A movie with so many telepathic characters should work harder to explore those interpersonal issues. Without the first films' textured relationships, the story becomes just another episode of Orange Fireball Cinema.
X-men: The Last Stand
** out of four stars
The setup: A government drug program to eliminate mutantism divides the X-Men against themselves.
What works: On a rote level , the noise, wreckage, jets of fire and battle scenes provide some excitement.
What doesn't: The characters lack the emotional weight and mythic stature displayed in the first two films.
Great line: Kelsey Grammer's scholarly Beast launches into a melee declaring, "Churchill said, 'There comes a time when men ... ' Oh, you get the idea!"
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action violence, some sexual content and language.