Juggling at least seven different plots, the 133-minute X2: X-Men United isn’t much for the whole brevity thing as its 104-minute predecessor was.
But it’s still effortlessly entertaining, thanks to a tremendous cast, brisk pace and sure-handed direction from Bryan Singer.
It’s not a frequent occurrence to see characters’ rage, alienation and faith showing through blown-up cop cars and dazzling mid-air rescues. But Singer is as attentive to storytelling as he is to spectacle. He allows the film’s broad messages against intolerance and hate and in favor of heroism and sacrifice to make their points without being sappy.
Familiarity with the first film is recommended, as X2 amps up its political undertones of human-mutant relations. In the opening sequence, Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), a mutant who can move through walls in the blink of an eye, tries to kill the President of the United States.
He is foiled and escapes, but the notion of living in perfect harmony is up for debate. Fearing a war on mutant-kind, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) tries to locate Nightcrawler and question him. What he discovers is a dastardly plot to kill all mutants hatched by General William Stryker (Brian Cox), who has a personally vested hatred for the species.
This main plot is balanced with Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) investigation into his past, the muddled motives of the imprisoned Magneto (Ian McKellen) and romantic entanglements among, well, just about every X-Man and Woman there is. It seems Professor Xavier and Magneto are the only asexual mutants alive.
X2 suffers when it treats the obvious connective tissue between plots as a mystery and its pull-out-all-the-stops finale goes on about five minutes too long. And even at protracted length, some characters get slighted. Cyclops (James Marsden) is MIA for at least an hour. And while Halle Berry wisely dropped the on-off Jamaican accent for her character Storm, all she does is stir up twisters.
They’re minor quibbles, though, with a film that so nimbly balances its action, comedy and drama.
Xavier’s “lecture” to Wolverine about cigar smoking is a sharply scripted zinger. The brutality of a battle between Wolverine and fellow metal-clawed warrior Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) is reminiscent of a similar brawl in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And the introduction of a wheelchair-bound mutant used as a pawn in a grand plan is a powerful, uncommonly somber moment.
Just like its mutant characters differ from humans, the X-Men franchise differs from most other comic-book cash cows. It’s sadder, saucier and significantly smarter.