[Screen It]

(2000) (Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: A team of superhero mutants tries to thwart the plans and efforts of another band of mutants who are determined to get even with the everyday humans who fear and/or try to repress them.
In the not so distant future, various people with genetic mutations are considered freaks and/or dangerous aberrations. One McCarthyesque politician, U.S. Senator Robert Kelly (BRUCE DAVISON), even wants to impose legislation designed to expose all such people.

Among them is Professor Charles Xavier (PATRICK STEWART) the telepathic, wheelchair-bound leader of the X-Men, a group of mutants whose purpose is to protect and teach their own kind about how to survive in a world where they're the definite minority. Among Xavier's longtime students is Cyclops (JAMES MARSDEN), a man whose eyes emit laser blasts; Jean Grey (FAMKE JANSSEN) another telepathic mutant with telekinetic powers; and Storm (HALLE BERRY) who can manipulate and control the weather.

Xavier's counterpart is Magneto (IAN McKELLEN), a man who, despite his powerful control over magnetism, couldn't escape the horrors and prejudice of WWII era concentration camps. As such, and feeling prosecuted once again, he's determined to avoid and/or control such hate from surfacing once more. Among his devoted followers are Sabretooth (TYLER MANE), a gargantuan and seemingly undefeatable giant of a man; Toad (RAY PARK) whose physical abilities mimic his namesake species; and Mystique (REBECCA ROMIJN-STAMOS) a blue-skinned mutant who can transform herself into anyone else.

When loner mutants Wolverine (HUGH JACKMAN), a man with retractable claws and the ability to heal quickly, and Rogue (ANNA PAQUIN) an alienated teenage girl who can absorb the powers of and thus kill anyone she touches, are attacked by Magneto's cronies, Xavier begins to question what his former acquaintance might be planning.

Upon learning that Magneto's diabolical plan involves Rogue and an upcoming United Nations Summit meeting, Xavier and his team set out to stop the mutant terrorists before they harm others and cause even further problems with their human counterparts.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Mutation (noun): A sudden structural change within a gene or chromosome of an organism resulting in the creation of a new character or trait not found in the parental type. Mutant (noun): An individual, an organism, or a new genetic character arising or resulting from mutation. Quote from old TV margarine commercial (silly): It's not nice to fool Mother Nature.

While margarine might seem to be a mutation of butter to some, it certainly doesn't fall into the same category as those various species throughout the history of life on Earth that obviously seem to have been the subject of Mother Nature's wrath, especially when viewed in the context of evolutionary hindsight. Of course, and at the time of their existence, such abnormal life forms probably seemed natural (as if any prehistoric creatures actually paid any attention to such matters, such as one Allosaurus saying to another: "Hey, would you look at the neck on the Brontosaurus!" and getting the response, "Oh, that's just how they all look nowadays").

Then again, today's perfectly acceptable characteristics might have seemed odd when they first popped up. As such, the opposable thumb probably freaked out the first primates who had it, while the non-retractable claws of the cheetah certainly seemed like a bad idea at the time, although they clearly didn't impede those cats' speed. Then there's the platypus that, well, okay, maybe it hasn't finished mutating yet. Who knows, maybe the white alligators and two-headed turtles that occasionally pop up are those species' respective destinies (after all, two heads are better than one).

Of course, when any such noticeable mutations occur in humans, the reaction is usually one of amazement, shock or horror, and quickly evokes cries for bans on nuclear energy, pesticides and any number of other "unnatural" products. Yet, for as horrible as some mutations can be, who's to say that any number of them might not be the next stage in human development?

As anyone who doesn't fit into the "norm" can tell you, however, it isn't easy being "different," especially when such a difference isn't beneficial in some manner. On the contrary, if such a "mutation" made a person better in some way, that would be an entirely different, but even potentially worse story.

That's the gist of "X-Men," director Bryan Singer's moderately enjoyable, live-action adaptation of the popular Marvel Comics comic book that originally debuted in 1963. Created by legendary Marvel guru, Stan Lee, the comic book consisted of a group of flawed superheroes who appeared in what amounted to a melodramatic allegory of the racial tension and unrest stemming from the civil rights movement of that era.

While I read a few of the issues during my comic book heyday of the early 1970s - unlike my next-door neighbor who was a big fan - I was more into "The Fantastic Four" and "The Avengers." Thus, I can't attest as to whether this film is completely faithful to the comic book, its various storylines and characters. I can say, however, that as a standalone film, this adaptation doesn't seem likely to upset any but the most die-hard fans and could possibly serve to introduce hordes of new ones to the comic book.

For the most part, the film avoids the biggest pitfall that's plagued many other comic book adaptations - be they for the big or small screen - and that's in looking and appearing unrealistic or even silly. After all, while comic book illustrators can make their superheroes and their outfits visually compatible with their surroundings, the often brightly colored getups (think of Superman and Wonder Woman) often look rather goofy and/or out of place.

With that problem out of the way - since the characters here mostly avoid bright pastels - the next one to overcome is in telling a decent story in an entertaining way. As such, director Singer ("Apt Pupil," "The Usual Suspects") and screenwriter David Hayter (making his feature film debut while working from Singer and producer Tom DeSanto's story adaptation of the original comic book) not only must deliver the necessary back-story and exposition to get the uninitiated up to speed, but then also fashion an intriguing enough story to engage and appease the fans and non-fans alike.

While they accomplish that first part with relative ease and without insulting or boring the viewer, the latter part of their task isn't quite as successful. The film's characterizations are generally okay (although some characters are shortchanged in depth and development), but the biggest problem is that the basic story isn't anything spectacular.

Although the gist of superheroes having to stop their equally powerful archenemies from completing their diabolical plan is pretty much a given standard in comic book form, it (like the costumes) doesn't necessarily transfer that well to the big screen. Part of the problem is that the audience is never pulled fully into the proceedings - we're passive rather than enthusiastic and engaged spectators - and Singer doesn't manage to instill or then maintain much momentum through the proceedings.

While there are some decent, but not particularly spectacular stunts, choreographed fights and special effects (courtesy of supervisor Michael Fink ("Mars Attacks!" "Batman Returns")) - not to mention a few worthwhile jokes/attempts at humor - the story simply never kicks into high gear. As a result, the film often feels somewhat flat.

What carries most of the picture, however, are some of the built-in characters and the performers who inhabit them. While Patrick Stewart (the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" TV series and films, "Conspiracy Theory") gets the top billing for once again being the stately leader of a team, Hugh Jackman (an Australian actor who's appeared in the Australian films "Paperback Hero" and "Erskineville Kings") steals the show as the character of Wolverine. Although the disgruntled and unhappy superhero demeanor isn't anything novel, Jackman plays the character with such conviction that you feel his pain and sympathize with his plight.

Oscar winner Anna Paquin ("The Piano," "Fly Away Home") is also good as the distraught teen whose angst comes from something a bit more troubling than acne and peer pressure. While James Marsden ("Gossip," "Disturbing Behavior") and Famke Janssen ("House on Haunted Hill," "GoldenEye") are okay in their supporting roles, Halle Berry ("Why Do Fools Fall in Love," "Bulworth") is pretty much wasted in the barely developed/explained character of Storm.

Among the villains, it's somewhat surprising to see the classically trained Ian McKellen ("Gods and Monsters," "Apt Pupil") levitating and occasionally wearing some goofy looking head gear, but he hams it up among the best of such characters and actually gives his some credible motivation (compared to most comic book inspired villains).

As his followers, Tyler Mane (a professional wrestler turned actor), Ray Park (Darth Maul in "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace") and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos ("Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," TV's "Just Shoot Me") aren't allowed to do much beyond some physical stunts, although the latter's outfit, if you will, certainly gets kudos for being the most interesting, if barely there, costume that any of the performers wears. Rounding out the bad guys is Bruce Davison ("Apt Pupil," "At First Sight") as a McCarthyesque senator, but he isn't menacing or powerful enough to make him as effective as he could and should have been.

That pretty much sums up the picture as a whole as well. While it's certainly not horrible by any means, it does lose some gusto as it draws toward a close, and its basic "good guys must stop the bad guys" story is certainly less than spectacular. Perhaps most surprising is that the film isn't that imaginative in pitting the powers of the superheroes and those of their archenemies against one another beyond the obvious.

Although "X-Men" has it moments and some decent characterizations not normally found in such films, it ever quite manages to be as entertaining or fun as it might have been. While better than many previous attempts at bringing comic book characters alive on the big screen, it certainly isn't anywhere in the same league as the best such adaptation to date, Richard Donner's "Superman." As such, the film, which isn't shy about setting up its sequel that will undoubtedly follow if this one is even moderately successful, rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 12, 2000 / Posted July 14, 2000

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