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X2: X-Men United

Bryan Singer's X-Men was a welcome treat upon its theatrical debut in 2000, finally proving that the Marvel Comics empire actually had immense box-office potential. And that was good news for Marvel, whose various potential film franchises had been languishing for a few decades while DC Comics' properties engendered the Superman and Batman franchises. X-Men also managed to launch the film career of Hugh Jackman, who was an eleventh-hour replacement for Dougray Scott in the pivotal role of Wolverine, transforming the obscure musical-theater performer into an international A-list hunk. Thankfully, the follow-up X2: X-Men United (2003) is no sophomore slump — it offers very few surprises, but fans will once again enjoy its action sequences, trenchant moodiness, and complete lack of spandex. The story begins as a mysterious mutant compromises White House security and nearly assassinates the president. The resulting hysteria allows government researcher William Stryker (Brian Cox) to launch an assault against all known mutants, and in particular the school headed by Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). Wolverine (Jackman) manages to escape with Rogue (Anna Paquin) and other students, while Storm (Halle Berry) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) seek out the would-be assassin, who turns out to be Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming). Meanwhile, Xavier and Cyclops (James Marsden) fall under Stryker's control, which means the X-Men reluctantly must team up with Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) to prevent Stryker from annihilating mutants worldwide. It's a sold summer thrill-ride, but unfortunately X2 suffers from the same small defect as its predecessor — the nature of this ongoing saga means that several of our heroes must share precious screen-time, and some simply don't have the same depth as others. The first film caused many to note that Halle Berry didn't get much time on camera; in this entry, James Marsden's role is reduced, and while Berry gets to show off a bit more (both as a weather-maker and aviator), neither Storm nor Cyclops are alloted the same level of internal drama as Wolverine, for example. Furthermore, the delicious romantic triangle between Jean, Cyclops, and Wolverine also is given short shrift. But it's hard to complain when the franchise's chief rivals remain Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, who speak every line as if they were walking the boards at the Old Vic. Alan Cumming, as Nightcrawler/Kurt Wagner, also strikes the right tone as the "transporter" mutant who hides a simple, timid humanity behind his formidable powers. And the fragile alliance between Magneto and the X-Men means that Rebecca Romijn-Stamos gets to flesh out the part of Mystique (pun very much intended). The set-pieces are generally good, including a mid-air battle and the final showdown at a hydroelectric dam, while the commando raid on Xavier's school is filled with one clever moment after another as the mutant kids each react in their own unique way. In what's sure to be an ongoing franchise, X2 likely won't be cataloged as one of the weaker entries. Fox's two-disc DVD comes in both anamorphic (2.35:1) and pan-and-scan editions. Features on both include a commentary from director Bryan Singer and cinematographer Tom Sigel, and a second track featuring five screenwriters and producers. Several featurettes also are included under the headings "History of the X-Men," "Pre-Production," "Production," and "Post-Production," including the hour-long documentary "The Second Uncanny Issue of The X-Men: Making X2." Eleven deleted scenes, three stills galleries, and three trailers round out the set. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.

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