THE X-MEN: Comic-book trappings overwhelm an intelligent plot

Friday, July 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

I wanted to like X-Men more than I did.

It's based on comic book icon Stan Lee's hit series about mutants who've spiked the evolutionary scale with their superhuman powers. There's a man whose eyes can burn through steel, a shape-shifter, a telepathic man, a telekinetic woman and so many more characters that unless you're familiar with the comics, you may wish that they'd handed out programs to keep track of them all.

Yet at first, X-Men seems to have more on its mind than just the old good-guys-vs.-bad-guys, comic-book plot.

It explores the hurt that bigotry can cause in the form of a vocal Joe McCarthy-type U.S. senator who is running for reelection on an anti-mutant campaign. It has two tragic heroes whose superpowers have left them feeling like unwanted outsiders -- feelings that will find great sympathy among a lot of teenagers. It's full of fantastical special effects.

It's also very melancholy and has an air of mystery, though that may not be so surprising once you know the film was directed by Bryan Singer. He kept audiences guessing several years ago in The Usual Suspects. He followed that up with more surprises in the underrated Apt Pupil, about a teen who discovered that a Nazi war criminal was living down the street. Ian McKellen, who played the old Nazi, is X-Men's villainous Magneto, a man whose magnetic abilities can wreak havoc and who is out for revenge against bigots like Bruce Davison's Sen. Kelly, who wants to "expose the dangers" of all mutants.

X-Men begins, startlingly, in the pouring rain at a Nazi concentration camp in 1944 Poland, where a young man is separated from his parents, who are headed for the gas chamber. It's a frightening sequence, hardly the stuff one expects from a movie about comic book heroes.

From there X-Men unexpectedly leaps 60 years or so to the near future, to a bedroom in a small Mississippi town, where a teenage girl is entertaining her boyfriend. But the sunny mood quickly darkens when a kiss leads to a terrifying moment.

And so X-Men is off and running.

At first it seems poised to offer us something strikingly different in the summer movie sweepstakes. And it does, for quite a while.

The Mississippi girl, who calls herself Rogue (Anna Paquin), flees to Canada's snowy far north, where she befriends a man whose name is Logan, but later becomes better known as Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) for the razor-sharp talons that can spring out of his knuckles when he's riled. Together they're hunted down by Magneto's henchman -- a toothy giant called Sabretooth -- in order to complete Magneto's scheme of wreaking revenge on "normal" humans who would isolate and perhaps destroy all mutants.

X-Men intelligently ponders the consequences of bigotry and the hurt that it causes. I had the unnerving feeling while watching the movie that the teenagers who shot up Columbine High probably could relate to the X-Men comics in their perceived notion as outsiders. One can just as easily take the anti-mutant creed of Sen. Kelly in X-Men and substitute other things -- religion, race, sexuality, political theory -- which have, over the years, all been used as red flags by bigots to further their own cause.

But Wolverine and Rogue are soon rescued by Cyclops (James Marsden), the man with the fiery eyes, and Storm (Halle Berry), a platinum-blonde who can control weather. They're transported to a Westchester County school for gifted mutants run by thoughtful, kindly, silky-voiced Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

Xavier, a longtime friendly foe of Magneto, has the world's most powerful telepathic powers. He's filled with hope for a future society where mutants and humans can co-exist peacefully. His school is designed to help his apt pupils learn to control their powers for mankind's good. Magneto, on the other hand, sees only a coming war between humans and mutants.

The setup is intriguing, but then the plot is overwhelmed by its colorful characters, its colossal sets and its special effects. There's a bullet that tantalizingly stops in mid-air at the forehead of a cop and a tidal wave of mutant energy that floods across New York Harbor, toward a group of world leaders. Prof. Xavier's domed chamber, in which he can get into the brains of anyone in the world, is a marvel.

But the marvel of the movie is lost as X-Men is betrayed by its comic-book origins. It becomes just another good-superheroes-vs.-bad-superheroes story, with characters who are interesting but not exactly compelling.

By the time Toad, a man with a tongue that seems about 80 feet long, is battling one of the heroes atop the Statue of Liberty, I found my mind wandering. Let's see, should it be the corn or the broccoli tomorrow night with dinner? This is always a bad sign for any movie, and an especially sad one for X-Men, which started out so promisingly.



Starring : Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Masden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison.

Producers: A 20th Century Fox picture written by David Hayter from the X-Men comic book series, directed by Bryan Singer.

Playing : Apple Valley, Harbour Mall, Holiday, Narragansett, North Dartmouth Mall, Providence Place, Showcase North Attleboro, Showcase Seekonk 1-10, Showcase Warwick, Stonington, Tri-Boro and Woonsocket cinemas.

Rated : PG-13, contains violence.

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.