The Dark Phoenix has risen. After the X-Men retrieve Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) from the ruins at Alkali Lake, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) reveals that the young mutant has given herself over to a mysterious, and infinitely more dangerous, power. Piquing the interest of Magneto (Ian McKellen), the master of metal leads his brotherhood of mutants to find Phoenix and use her as their ultimate weapon, rousing Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Storm (Halle Berry), Beast (Kelsey Grammer), and the X team to stop them at all costs. Their struggle eventually leads to an epic battle of good vs. evil; however, the challenge is heightened further with the introduction of a Government-sponsored mutant “cure,” opening the door to a life for mutants who’ve always desired human normalcy.
We last left the X-Men in 2003’s “X2,” under the passionate guidance of director Bryan Singer. Singer jumped ship from the franchise to tackle the Man of Steel in June’s “Superman Returns,” and he left behind a series of films that depended on his commitment to humanity and superhero verisimilitude. Enter director Brett Ratner.
A cliched Internet fanboy villain, I have yet to find a Ratner film I haven’t enjoyed, and the affable, dynamic director brings his pop rocks sensibilities to “Last Stand.” From just the design of the opening titles, it’s apparent that the new X-Men film isn’t going to play in Singer’s highly structured sandbox. Ratner is chasing a colorful comic book tone with his installment, as “Last Stand” attempts to deal more simplistically with Singer’s conundrums. Like most of his productions, Ratner’s directorial enthusiasm can wonderfully infectious, but the truth is this: as first-rate as “Last Stand” is, it doesn’t follow through with what Singer was trying so hard to achieve, and that’s the movie’s greatest sin. “X2” was about as ideal a comic book adaptation as there can be. “Last Stand” is merely a delicious mutant roller coaster ride lacking all gravitas.
Ratner and his screenwriters (Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn) try to shake off the grave tone of Singer’s last two films quickly with an unusual opening set 20 years ago as Magneto and Xavier look to help a young Jean Grey consider her powers. Using CG to pare down the years on Stewart and McKellen’s faces (a subtle and grand effect), Ratner introduces his playful tone early but still draws menace from watching Grey’s limitless potential for havoc tested.
The rest of “Last Stand” looks to move to the same beat as the opening, balancing mutant pyrotechnics and swift, buoyant storytelling with Singer-influenced grabs at blunt tragedy and soul searching. Ratner clearly has a sure hand with the action, since these are the moments he can call his own. This sequel is constructed to show off the might of as many mutants as possible, adding, to the core group of heroes and villains, stampeding Juggernaut (aptly cast Vinnie Jones), the resourceful Callisto (Dania Ramirez), the winged Angel (Ben Foster), and invisible Kitty Pryde (the abrasive Ellen Page, “Hard Candy”).
“Last Stand” can seem at times like a desperate franchise free-for-all, with Ratner tossing in everything he can think of to create an epic feel of mutant struggle. If there wasn’t such a soaring spirit of adventure to the film, the picture would surely crack under the sheer weight of all the characters pining for their chance in the spotlight. Clocking in at a lean 105 minutes, there just isn’t enough time to address everybody’s motivation, leaving the film messy with characterizations and the viewer close to wincing at some of the unmistakably corner-cutting dialog.
However, concerns of overpopulation seem to melt away when “Last Stand” begins to cook. As the mutants start to rumble, the action gets fierce, and contains a higher body count than any fan might expect. A large selling point of this sequel is that it’s anyone’s guess who makes it to the end credits. Because Ratner isn’t taking the same care as Singer with this vast world, he isn’t afraid to kill off beloved characters or tragically alter the fates of the ones we loathe, using the cutting ways of unpredictability to fuel the film’s thrilling action set-pieces. It’s cheap, but it’s undeniably effective.
Unfortunately, while “Last Stand” picks up right where “X2” left off, to achieve full throttle pace, Ratner had to jettison some of Singer’s more interesting dramatic pursuits, including Wolverine’s damning conscience (he’s in full hero mode here) and the friendly game of power played between Magneto and Xavier. Replacing these themes is an on-the-nose political allegory that doesn’t quite capture the heart of the series, but instead leaves ample opportunity for the mutants to engage in slapfights. If the effort isn’t going to be made to match Singer’s vigilant commitment to tone, I can’t think of a better replacement than watching Wolverine stalk and kill more prey (Jackman has always been a film highlight), Beast zip around in a big, blue blur, Juggernaut smash through walls, and Phoenix test the paper-thin limitations of her apocalyptic destructive powers.
More tender fans of the earlier “X-Men” films might be put off by this greatest hits installment (which seems to combine about four sequels into one), and I can sympathize heartily with that feeling. Brett Ratner certainly doesn’t try to dig as deeply into the franchise’s potential as Bryan Singer; but take “The Last Stand” as all surface, relentless comic book amusement, and it’s a vastly agreeable sit.Rating: A-