Flawed though it was, “X-Men” was no minor accomplishment. Despite being saddled with the usual comic book baggage of having to tell a story while relating a variety of superhero and supervillain origins, “X-Men” came off as faithful, accomplished and surprisingly intelligent for its genre. The sequel has the advantage of inheriting all of the first film's strengths and none of its weaknesses. Wasting no time in raising the ante, the picture starts with a stunning roller-coaster sequence in which a blue devil-looking mutant, later identified as Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), stages a daring raid on the White House, whirling through and past an army of security before quite nearly killing the president of the United States. Sensing that the “mutant problem” may need to be addressed through more covert measures, the president authorizes military scientist William Stryker (Brian Cox) to use any and all methods to get to the bottom of things.
Stryker, of course, isn't quite what he seems, for he has a much more personal history with mutants than he lets on, including previous relationships with Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and, most importantly, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). He may even hold the key to unlocking Wolverine's memories of his past. For the time being, however, Stryker is more interested in Xavier, launching a full-scale military assault on the school and compound to take the professor captive. Fortunately, most of the remaining X-Men are able to escape, along with a handful of “gifted” students.
As usual, the wild card in all of this is Magneto (Ian McKellen) who, from his plastic prison cell, has seemingly been used by Stryker to formulate some kind of nefarious plan. But Magneto has ideas of his own, eventually escaping with the aid of Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and sewing uncertainty into the best laid plans of men and mutants.
Hollywood has become so adept at delivering films of this scale that it almost goes without saying that “X2” features some of the most seamless and inventive special effects seen in an action movie. What is not typical of the genre is the careful fashion in which the action sequences have been laid out and choreographed for the camera. The slapdash MTV-style editing and confusing camerawork with which Hollywood has become increasingly enamored is gone and replaced by a new vision more akin to the one once embraced by directors like Steven Spielberg. Building on his work in the previous film, director Bryan Singer has constructed what amounts to a cinematic fortress--every detail meticulously planned and executed so as to eliminate even the appearance of weakness anywhere in the structure.
Singer is helped in no small measure by a stunning cast of technicians and supporting players, including longtime editor/composer John Ottman, who replaces a virtual army of composers and editors from the previous picture. Handling two key post-production chores is nothing new for Ottman--he's done double-duty on all three previous collaborations with Singer as well as “Urban Legends: Final Cut”--but Ottman has also never worked on a film as large or demanding as “X2.” That he is able to deliver Oscar-caliber work as both a composer and an editor, helped in the latter only by a key co-editor (Elliot Graham), is certain to go down as one of the most staggering achievements by any film artist or craftsman this year.
Behind the obligatory action film flash and sizzle, however, “X2” has a secret weapon that has long eluded the action film genre: a good script. Written by Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris from a story by Singer, David Hayter and Zak Penn, “X2” has all the credentials to seem like another discombobulated formula blockbuster, yet never falls prey to such pitfalls. Stubbornly refusing to embrace contrivance or condescend to lowest-common-denominator considerations, “X2” is that rarest of action films, devoid of clichés and surprisingly attentive to the humanity of its characters. Some of the subplots are continued from the previous film--like the ongoing love triangle between Wolverine, Cyclops and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen)--while others, like the difficult budding romance between Rogue (Anna Paquin) and a frosty-fingered young man known as Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), are new. By film's end, audiences will feel as if they genuinely know each and every character better than when they walked in--an impressive achievement for any script, but a particularly noteworthy milestone for an action film with large ensemble cast.
Even if future installments in the series never again live up to the standard set by “X2,” it's unlikely that the Hollywood action blockbuster will ever be the same again.