Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Children of the Atom, Part 3: X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

File:X-Men The Last Stand.jpg

            Countdown to X-Men: Days of Future Past, Part 3…

            Before we jump into the review proper, first, a history lesson: after the critical and commercial success of X2, director Bryan Singer found himself in a position of doing whatever he wanted next… so he chose to do a Superman movie instead. Being that the X-movies were essentially printing money and the end of X2 all but promised a next installment, the third movie was put on the fast track by Twentieth Century Fox, and after some hemming and hawing, filmmaker Matthew Vaughn was selected to replace Singer in the director’s chair, hot off his critically acclaimed debut Layer Cake. It was a choice almost everyone was happy with, and slowly the pieces of the film were assembled, with X-Men: The Last Stand set for a summer 2006 release date.

            And then Vaughn quit. It’s hard to fault him, as the rushed production schedule and the sheer size of the film (at the time, the most expensive ever made) would have been definite problems as his sophomore effort. With shooting nearing and the director’s chair empty, the studio selected Bret Ratner as the film’s director, a choice that didn’t excite much anybody and generally let the air out of the film’s tires almost instantaneously.

            And so X-Men: The Last Stand opened to mixed reviews and almost universal fan derision, although it still remains the highest-grossing entry in the franchise. Looking at it now, it’s hard to call it the very worst in the series… although it’s certainly not the best. With an ever-expanding cast and an ever-diminishing focus, X-Men: The Last Stand tries admirably to deliver a worthwhile effort, but the perfunctory and overall emotionless nature of the film makes it hard to sit through. 

            The biggest problem are the clashing narratives. The last entry set-up the return of Jean Grey as Phoenix, and thus the third installment must deliver on that promise. The filmmakers further complicate this by also having the other main thrust of the plot being a new cure for mutants, which sees them return to being normal old human beings. This is actually a pretty great and thought-provoking idea, especially in the thematically-rich X-Men universe of bigotry and identity, but having it shoe-horned in along with all the Phoenix business means the film never gets the chance to really explore the ramifications of such a “cure.” 

            Aside from the dueling storylines, the film just pretty much drops the ball dramatically in nearly every possible regard. The large and unwieldy cast is whittled down through cheap deaths and characters receiving the cure and virtually disappearing from the film - a few decisions of which sent X-fans into a furor at the time of the film’s release. Most especially egregious is the film’s offhanded way of killing Scott Summers/Cyclops. It’s true that James Marsden (unfairly) never got a whole lot to do in any of these films, but having the character killed off in the first thirty minutes, without even the dignity to die on-camera? That’s just a whole different kind of low.

            The returning actors all do as fine a job as they did previous, with Jackman and McKellen being the standouts once more. It’s also nice to see Halle Berry’s Storm become an actual significant character, here stepping into the role of leader after Xavier’s death. Also doing a surprisingly excellent job is Famke Jansen as the resurrected Jean Grey - her character might have been shoehorned in, but she plays the role of a dangerous split-personality exceedingly well. 

            Out of the many new additions to the cast, it’s only Kelsey Grammer who gets a chance to shine as the affable Beast - a perfect match between actor and character. I wish I could say that Ben Foster also does a fine job as the winged Angel, but he doesn’t get a chance to do much other than show up and do a whole lot of nothing. There’s also Magneto’s army of goth/punk wannabes, the type of mutants with powers Ratner and his screenwriters must have thought were cool and interesting, but couldn’t be more boring. And Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut? That’s a classic example of filmmakers taking an inherently stupid character and making him even more stupid by toning down the stupid elements to make him seem more “real.”

            The cast and the story are all over the place, but another of the film’s mortal sins is its pretense of being an ending to the X-Men saga, only to pull back at the last second with a “Not really!” and thus undermine pretty much the entire movie that came before it. It’s like the film shoots itself in the foot before reaching the finish line, only to shoot itself in the other foot after stumbling over said finish line. All of this might have been forgiven had the film been able to craft a story with any genuine weight behind it, but all the emotions are telegraphed through grand statements that lack the proper set-up and have no context - the scenes played as so “important” and expository it comes off as more of a daytime soap opera than an actual narrative feature. 

            It deserves kudos for at least trying to be about something interesting, but X-Men: The Last Stand is ultimately a wet fart of an ending to the original saga. Yet still not the worst entry we’ll see before the series ends…

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