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X-Men: The Last Stand

Most of the geek-speaking world was lightly appalled when it was announced that director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, et. al.) would be taking the reins of the X-Men series. Flame on: Red Dragon wasn't terrible, and his give-up-your-dreams-and-breed pamphlet The Family Man is kind of sweet. But in every other respect, one must consider this particular filmmaker-for-hire way too relaxed to tackle what Ian McKellen has rightly called "the most important of all the superhero franchises." Departed director Bryan Singer had this crazy idea to portray superpowered mutants as serious and occasionally subtle human beings — which stands in sharp contrast to Ratner, who directed After the Sunset like he was working on his tan. It thus comes as a surprise that X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) — the purported final film in the series — is actually fast-moving, funny, bolstered by a few provocative ideas, and blessed with a couple of set pieces that are beautifully staged and even slightly eerie. The movie's not perfect or subtle, and it takes a few dips into bombast, illogic, and cheese. But it's hardly the disaster fans were dreading. In fact, in many respects it's a pretty decent, tragic ending to the series. The filmmakers interweave two stories from the comics, one old, one new. From Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, they cadge the idea of a pharmaceutical company developing a "mutant cure." (b/t/w, wouldn't Whedon have been the perfect director for this?) However, the mutants react to the possibility of a "cure" in different ways, depending on how much they enjoyed their powers. Rogue (Anna Paquin) thinks it might allow her to finally touch her boyfriend Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) without killing him. Storm (Halle Berry, in a blandly expanded role) doesn't think mutants need curing. Blue-furred politico Beast (Kelsey Grammer, in an inspired bit of casting) tries to straddle the issue. And arch-villain Magneto (McKellen) worries (correctly) that it will be weaponized. As Magneto goes all Bin Laden and organizes a terrorist army to destroy the "cure," Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) pops out of her watery grave with a bad dye-job, worse impulse control, and long-repressed apocalyptic powers. Soon, she's working out daddy issues on Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and hanging out with the bad guys — and the movie starts piling up bodies, betrayals, and "cures" with a surprising ruthlessness.

Some pre-release reports online linked X-Men: The Last Stand to Return of the Jedi, which sounds about right: Both movies trade the sad poetry of their second installments for action bombast, sillier costumes, soap-opera dramatics, honking music, and a far less subtle handling of theme and character — but it still sort of works, if you can squint past the Ewok moments. Where Singer always handled emotion and logic better than action, Ratner (working from a script by Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn) has pretty much the opposite problem: He crams the movie with mayhem, most of it involving Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, who's hairier than ever). By the time Magneto is literally floating the Golden Gate Bridge across the bay so he and his Goth cronies can stage a Helm's-Deep siege of the pharmaceutical company, you've sort of surrendered yourself to the thing. (It's only later that we wonder why there's a pharmaceutical company on Alcatraz, or why certain characters hold off using their powers like they're waiting in the wings at a talent show.) Still, when the movie works, it really works. Two scenes where Xavier and Magneto visit Jean's Poltergeist-like childhood home — once before and once after the old men's falling-out — are among the best in the series. Jean's cosmic rages have a low-calorie Akira creep-factor. Hard Candy's Ellen Page is a welcome addition to the X-roster. McKellen carries the film on his arched eyebrow. The pacing's brisk enough to paper over the rough patches. There are a couple of betrayals that hurt. And the debates about the merits of the "cure" have a ham-fisted heft. Last Stand won't haunt you like the best moments of Singer's films, and it's definitely simpler-minded. But most fans of the series likely won't be too insulted.

*          *          *

Fox's DVD release of X-Men: The Last Stand features a excellent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with DTS 6.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The disc offers two menu designs ("Join the Brotherhood" and "Take a Stand") with identical menu content. Director Brett Ratner is joined on a commentary by screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, while a second track features producers Avi Arad, Lauren Schuler Donner, and Ralph Winter. Also on hand are 10 deleted scenes and three alternate endings, also with optional commentary and a "play all" feature, two theatrical trailers, trailers for other Fox titles, and sneak-previews of The Simpsons movie and A Night at the Museum. Keep-case.
Mike Russell

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