This engaging characterization of the X-Men and their adversaries lies solely in the able hands of director Bryan Singer, who proved his ability to manage an ensemble cast in "The Usual Suspects," which at first appeared to be about plot but ended up relying on good characters. He introduces the audience to the primary players one by one, starting with a young boy who, wrenched from his parents by the Nazis in 1944 Poland, bends the metal gates that separate them through the sheer force of his agony. Cut to a Southern girl on the brink of adolescence, whose first kiss puts her boyfriend in a coma. Then there's the unassuming, hard-bodied brawler who fights in a cage at a Canadian bar for extra cash.
These men and women are, of course, mutants--evolved humans who are feared and persecuted by their superpower-less counterparts. A war is brewing between those who would wipe out the human race and those who would nurture understanding, and each mutant is going to have to choose a side.
The concentration camp-bound boy grows up to be Magneto (Ian McKellen), a bitter man who loathes humans or, rather, how they've treated him. With help from animalistic Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), shape shifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) and acrobatic Toad (Ray Park), he builds a device that would turn the weaker beings into mutants, making everyone equal.
Meanwhile, Magneto's old friend Professor X (Patrick Stewart), wheelchair-bound but endowed with psychic powers, has established a school for "gifted" children, where he teaches mutants how to adjust to their powers and strives for acceptance from the outside world. Storm (Halle Berry), Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Cyclops (James Marsden) teach at the school and welcome--some not so willingly--Rogue (Anna Paquin), the girl with the poisonous skin, and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the phalange-enhanced fighter, introduced at the beginning of the film. It's clear that Magneto has a vested interest in Professor X's new recruits. The question is, why?
This plot is admittedly simplistic, but when viewed as a part of a possible franchise, it feels episodic, like its comic series roots. The film's real strength--besides its fast, furious, fun special effects--is its attention to the characters' individual quirks and their complicated relationships with each other. Jackman, for example, is going to burst on the Hollywood scene with the same momentum as did fellow Aussies Russell Crowe and Heath Ledger in "Gladiator" and "The Patriot," respectively. The film's coda sets up a sequel focused on Wolverine's search for the truth about his past, and it's a wise choice.
Singer loves using close-ups, which create an intimate bond with the audience while disallowing the filmmakers to cheat on special effects. One sees, for example, Wolverine's fierce metal claws retreat back under his skin in naked detail.
What is surprising about "X-Men," however, is that it's downright funny. Wolverine, who has a strained relationship with Cyclops, tells him at one point, "Keep your eye open." When Wolverine complains about the X-Men's stiff uniform, Cyclops sneers, "What would you prefer, yellow spandex?" in a clever reference to Wolverine's comic book duds. Not to be outdone, Wolverine subtly retracts all of his talons, save the middle one.
Intelligent enough to engage an adult audience, yet rated PG-13 for teenage fans, "X-Men" gives the sci-fi action-adventure genre a bit of depth without sacrificing the eye candy audiences have come to expect. Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paqin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Bruce Davison. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by David Hayter. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter. A Fox release. SF. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence. Running time: 104 min