US 2000
dir. Bryan Singer
scr. David Hayter (story: Singer, Tom Di Santo)
cin. Newton Thomas Sigel
stars Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin, Ian McKellen
104 minutes

Though it’s no classic, X-Men is a pleasant surprise – an efficient and enjoyable special-effects romp, more intelligent and original than most of its type, though not to the extent of, say, Starship Troopers. It does stand as a considerable achievement for director Singer, who deserves much credit for his nimble avoidance of the numerous pitfalls and booby-traps inherent in the material. That doesn’t mean he’s anywhere near the likes of Paul Verhoeven or David Cronenberg, of course – both of those directors would surely have pushed the movie to much wilder and more satisfying extremes, far beyond the requirements of what the studio undoubtedly hopes will develop into a kid-friendly potential franchise.

It’s all too apparent that this is intended as the first film in at least a trilogy, and the sheer amount of exposition involved means that the actual plot is both sketchy and convoluted. The set-up is that certain members of mankind have made an unexplained genetic leap forward in the evolution process – they are mutants, each endowed with a special power. We aren’t told why most of these individual should be endowed with only one special power, or why most of the gifts should be so drastically different from each other. And, while many of the heroic X-Men aren’t quite in full control of their abilities, we’re a long way from the types of mutants who inhabit the novels of Philip K Dick, where precognitive, telekinetic and telepathic abilities aren’t much help in making sense of otherwise crushingly mundane daily lives. But these are understandable shortcomings in a project which must condense 40 years of X-Men comic-book history into a single coherent whole, accessible to non-fans but satisfying to devotees.

So, we have two sets of mutants – the numerous goodies, led by Professor Xavier (Stewart), and the smaller crop of baddies, led by Magneto (McKellen). Ordinary humans are, it seems, becoming increasingly perturbed about the numbers of mutants in society – conservative forces want to see the introduction of a ‘name and shame’ style public register. This alarms concentration-camp survivor Magneto, who fears mutants will be persecuted out of existence, and instead plans to impose his own will on events, sparking a war with humanity. Xavier, who is hopeful that the two strands of humanity can co-exist side by side, aims to stop his former friend. Events are complicated by the arrival on the scene of initially non-aligned mutants Wolverine (Jackman), a bad-tempered streetfighter, and teenager Rogue (Paquin), who absorbs the powers of other mutants by touch.

Wolverine is the cult hero among X-men fans, and he’s central to the film. Jackman does his best with the role – he gets almost all the film’s laughs with his terminally-unimpressed attitude – but he’s ultimately unconvincing. Though it’s possible to pump up the body, as Jackman has clearly done to an impressive degree, you can’t pump up the face, and Jackman’s just isn’t mean enough – his absurdly elaborate 70s-style hair doesn’t help, either. He’s an actor’s idea of a tough guy – and only got the part after Dougray Scott and Russell Crowe pulled out – Crowe would have been better, and, being relatively diminutive (not that you’d guess it from Gladiator), closer in stature to the Wolverine of the comicbooks, who’s about five foot three, a Henry Rollins type of angry shortarse. Incidentally, it’s also pivotal to the comicbooks that Wolverine is Canadian, not American. Judging by his accent, this hasn’t been communicated to Jackman who’s yet another in the line of youngish Aussie actors (including, of course, Crowe) we’re having to make do with until David Wenham, easily the best of bunch, deigns to display his talents outside the Antipodes.

But the lead actor’s limitations aren’t too much of a problem – as with Gone In Sixty Seconds, part of the fun of X-Men is the sheer size and variety of the supporting cast, from the gleefully slumming Stewart and McKellen to subsidiary heroes Halle Berry (as weather-controlling Storm) and Famke Janssen (telekinesist and telepath Jean Grey), to Bruce (Willard) Davison’s mutant-hating Senator Kelly, to subsidiary villains Tyler Mane (Sabretooth, a kind of malign Chewbacca), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (shapeshifter Mystique) and Ray Park (from Phantom Menace and Sleepy Hollow, and now as the unconvincingly cockney Toad). There are no actual standouts in the cast, but it’s worth noting another solid turn from Janssen (an underrated, understated actress who’s shown her professionalism, consistency and versatility since Goldeneye with City of Industry, Gingerbread Man, Deep Rising, Celebrity, Rounders, The Faculty and House On Haunted Hill), while Mane makes a striking visual impression in his relatively few appearances as the gargantuan Sabretooth.

Mane provides Singer with one of the film’s few visual flourishes – early on, during an attack on Wolverine and Rogue, he pauses, realises snow is falling around him, and dimly in the distance we see two blurry figures (X-Men!) in silhouette. It’s a transient glimpse into the film X-Men could perhaps have been. Most of Singer’s coups are equally throwaway – I liked the way Magneto caused bits of metal to fly up in front of him, forming a gangway to walk on, Silver Surfer style, but this isn’t emphasised at all, it’s just there if you are attentive enough to spot it. This is essentially a professional, rather than inspired job from Singer. Nobody pretends that his previous biggest hit, The Usual Suspects, was notable for its direction – it was the script (which, for me, was clever-clever rather than intelligent) that made the movie stand out from the pack. There’s nothing here to suggest Singer has the makings of anything other than a talented journeyman. The action sequences are OK without ever being anything special – in fact, during the numerous hand-to-hand combat scenes, it isn’t always easy to work out exactly what’s going on. Similarly, there are several blurry moments when the audience may lose track of exactly what it is that Magneto’s planning, and how Rogue fits into it all, and how Xavier is responding to his threats.

These quibbles don’t perturb the viewer while the film’s actually running, however. What’s more important is the fact that X-Men – mainly thanks to Wolverine’s endless stream of sardonic comments – never takes itself too seriously, no mean achievement given the portentous Holocaust/Civil Rights elements of the script. And it doesn’t even run for that long, clocking in comfortably shy of two hours. Given Hollywood’s ongoing tendency towards flab and sprawl, that’s something of a superhuman feat in itself.

Why not check out our review of the sequel X-Men 2

by Neil Young