X-Men: The Last Stand

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 05/31/06 21:14:21

"The lousy title and enormous plot holes are the least of our concerns."
1 stars (Sucks)

So it’s come to this: Late in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” the supposed final chapter of the franchise, kick-ass mutant superhero Wolverine is having no luck beating up on a bad guy. He slashes, he punches, he goes attacks left and right. Nothing. And then he just up and kicks the bad guy in the crotch, bad guy falls over, audience laughs, and I’m reminded once more that this is the movie that completely ruins a darn fine series.

Internet scuttlebutt tells us that Brett Ratner, the hack director who gave us “Rush Hour” and “After the Sunset” (I liked both despite neither being any good) and “Money Talks,” “Rush Hour 2,” “The Family Man,” and “Red Dragon” (I hated them all, as once again: not any good), is to blame for this chapter not being nearly as good as its predecessors. I’ll agree to the point that Ratner has never had any clue as to how to handle the human angle of any of his stories, and he delivers a feature that reveals a shameful ignorance of the subtle politics of science fiction.

But I will also place full blame on the studio, which rushed this effort into production after being unwilling to wait a year while Bryan Singer (who helmed the first two “X-Men” movies) finished his “Superman Returns.” Greed won out over quality; Fox wanted a tentpole project for this summer, and they knew they could squeak out big bucks from a large opening weekend, and who cares if the flick’s any good?

So they hired screenwriters Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg - Penn got a story credit on “X2” before going on to write “Suspect Zero” and the unbearably stupid “Elektra;” Kinberg wrote “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and the unbearably stupid “XXX: State of the Union” - to pick up the pieces of a rushed production that had been falling apart (after Singer announced he’d want to wait to make the movie, Fox then brought in a series of writers and directors, trying to slap something together quickly, settling on Rather, Penn, and Kinberg). Their script is so awkward, sloppy, and downright incompetent that it manages to make other big budget comic book failures look pretty good in comparison.

Yes, Ratner can’t handle drama, but at least he does a halfway decent job of delivering some loud action. Yes, the new cast members range from boring to laughably awful, but at least the appearances by Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, and Hugh Jackman are as solid as usual. Yes, Halle Berry threw a fit and threatened to quit the franchise unless she was given a larger role, and yes, that larger role results in a bit of irony (while her character has triple the screen time as the last two movies combined, she still has absolutely nothing to do in this sequel), but the inflated presence of Halle Berry still isn’t enough to bring down the series.

But when you get to looking at what Penn and Kinberg have delivered, you begin to wonder if, just maybe, they’re corporate spies hired to bring down the franchise from the inside.

Consider the script’s asinine dependence on exposition. Although we already know which superheroes in the film have which superpowers (even if you’ve never seen parts one and two, the early scenes make it pretty easy to pick up on who’s who), we still get lines like: “I don’t have to be psychic to see that something’s bothering you.” Ugh. And there’s a lot more where that came from, kids.

Then again, the dialogue’s pretty crappy all over, the screenplay overflowing with bad puns and snippy comebacks that would even make Arnold Schwarzenegger groan. One scene, late in the film, has the villainous master-of-metal Magneto (McKellan) tearing up the Golden Gate Bridge and using it as a quick transport to Alcatraz; as the bridge thuds down on the island, Magneto steps forward and smirks, referring to his rival’s efforts to make nice: “Charles always wanted to build bridges.”

(Although that’s better than hearing Vinnie Jones shout “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch!,” a line that’s supposed to earn cheers from action-anxious viewers and fanboys who catch the reference to a line from an Internet fan film that, from what I understand, was supposed to be making fun of such stupid screenwriting.)

When not piling on the horrid dialogue, Penn and Kinberg are hard at work ensuring that absolutely no character a) does anything worth watching; b) has enough screen time to make his/her character’s subplot make any sense at all; c) reacts in any reasonable way to the story; d) does anything that ever makes any sense at all.

The previous two “X-Men” films also had to deal with large casts, but those found a workable balance, focusing on just a few key characters and leaving the rest to help fill in the corners, be they used for action thrills or emotional heft. In “The Last Stand,” however, the abundance of characters confounds the filmmakers. To deal with it, the writers merely throw everybody into the pool, winging it from there. Entire subplots come and go seemingly at random - by the time some characters reappear late in the film, I had actually forgotten they were in the movie at all. Other subplots are built up as key moments in advancing the main story, only to get sidelined for no understandable reason, other than perhaps they wanted to make room for a big, loud action finale, and you can’t have drama mixing with your big, loud action finale.

The plot, which I should probably recap in order for you to make sense of my next few complaints, borrows liberally from several story arcs in the comic book’s long history. Psychic mutant Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), it turns out, did not die at the end of the previous film, but kept her self alive by creating a telekinetic cocoon around her; she has returned, but only in the form of her “other,” darker self, a being called Phoenix. (What? You didn’t know Jean had a split personality created by Professor Xavier when she was a child to help control her mental powers? Neither did we. It’s the movie’s quick, cheap way of bringing in the whole Phoenix idea without having to actually put any effort into getting it to make any sense.)

Meanwhile, the government is ready to approve a “mutant cure,” a chemical injection that will reverse all genetic mutation. Which raises plenty of ethical questions: is mutation a disease, or a gift? Should mutants be allowed the right to revert to human form? Does anyone have the right to force such a change on unwilling mutants?

Good questions, all. And if anyone here had the slightest clue how to handle social commentary, it’d probably make for one great story. Instead, we get some ungainly posturing posing as political relevance and broad, contradictory statements confused for important message-making.

Quite simply, the cure is not discussed nearly enough to get the most out of the debate. While in the X-Men universe (both comics and film), mutation is sci-fi shorthand for all manner of minority issues and the acceptance that should come with it, the film series has taken a bend, allowing mutants to stand in for homosexuality. It’s not so absolute that other minorities can’t be substituted (in fact, the beauty of the first two films is how they can convey one meaning while still leaving some wiggle room for other interpretations), but some scenes, like a “coming out” scene in “X2,” underlines a rather interesting take on being gay in the modern world.

The cure, then, could represent those who claim to “rid” homosexuals of their “choice.” Heavy stuff, but “The Last Stand” curiously tiptoes around the issue. It’s afraid to handle the subject, so it instead prefers to see it instead as a non-metaphor, as a made up sci-fi issue. This keeps Ratner and company away from commenting on something they’re not bright enough to discuss.

Even with no subtext, though, it fails. Discussion is kept to an absolute minimum, the writers and director unwilling to deal with heavy stuff like actual ideas both political and personal. Even when the cure is used to deliver an emotional drive and promise some character growth (a subplot finds Rogue, the mutant played by Anna Paquin whose powers prevent her from touching anyone, deciding to go get the cure), it’s fumbled. Rogue disappears for too much of the final act - when, in fact, the final act should be all about her. Considering how this character has factored so much into the first two films, it would only make sense to wrap things up with her. But no, she simply wanders off, only to return long after her story has lost its relevance. And her reappearance goes against what so much of the film thinks it has to say.

It’s not the only time the movie contradicts itself. Late in the film, it does so in a very big, very reprehensible way. It’s obvious that the viewpoint of all mutants, good guys and bad guys alike, that this cure is questionable at best and evil at worst. So when the cure is turned into a weapon to be used by government goons, it should be seen as the vile act it is. Instead, it is merely part of an action sequence: ooh, they’re shooting mutants, and ooh, that makes them human! Look over there! Something just blew up!

Anyway, the X-Men then decide to protect these same goons from Magneto’s attack, an action which goes against their core beliefs (unless you argue that all lives are worth protecting, which is a good point, but not one that’s made very well here whatsoever). The kicker? Cornered by Magneto, the X-Men find a few unused “cure bullets.” Now, the obvious - and right - thing for them to do is to decide amongst themselves that even in such a hopeless time, there is no good to come from using the cure. They find victory not in physical battle but in the realm of ethics, of standing up for what they know is right, even if it means their downfall.

This is not what they do. No, they just sweep ’em up and use ’em to take down a baddie, thereby going against everything they are as heroes.

The message, then, if one is to believe that the filmmakers have a message in mind (which is questionable), is that being yourself isn’t actually as important as being “normal,” because fitting in will make you happier. You could even argue that the movie is ultimately homophobic (or racist, or sexist, or whatever), as its thoughtless, ignorant mishandling of the series’ social issues tells us that being different is something that you really might want to fix.

(I’m not sure Ratner and his team set out to deliver such a message. Sloppy, inept storytelling, not meanspiritedness, is to blame.)

And what to make of the film’s inability to deal with consequences? This is a screenplay that seems to forget the very scene that comes before. Consider a funeral of a major character, which is followed up by a romantic ice skating scene. Not only is it awkward (my friend Matt, an expert of sorts in screenplay construction, insists - correctly - that the funeral needs to be moved to the end of the film, allowing for proper closure, instead of sitting in the middle, where it offers too little impact), but it ruins the flow of the film, jarring the audience and tossing them around from low to high without understanding how best to work the rhythms of a story’s emotions.

But then, we’re talking about a movie that offs a main character, then completely forgets to deal with it. At all. In fact, for a while, I wasn’t even sure this character was dead, considering how the movie didn’t seem to care about this sudden absence. The characters simply shrug this person’s disappearance off with the same “oh well” that meets the killing of every faceless extra in the final battle. (Those faceless extras getting killed, by the way? It’s too much, done too quickly and too often, ruining the effect and removing any sense of emotional connect that the deaths might have offered.)

And don’t get me started on that final battle, which builds up to a mutant named Leech who can sap the powers of any other mutant around him. Talk about a letdown: after two hours of building and building and building to this kid, making him the center of the whole cure plotline, we finally see all plot points connect at the lab where he is kept… and then they just toss him aside, just like everything else. Yeah, there’s a rescue mission, but it’s so secondary to everything else (it’s even done by third-tier characters) that it could’ve been edited out of the movie and nothing - absolutely nothing! - would have changed. For all the film does to focus on this character, for the script to then just drop him in the same way that it drops every other important character, well, that’s quite simply a complete and utter failure of storytelling. (The entire third act is in dire need of a rewrite, but to discuss more would be to venture into spoiler territory, and I already fear I’ve revealed too much.)

The more I think about “The Last Stand,” the angrier I get. It is an absolute mess of a film, but it is more than that - its careless mishandling of its social commentary makes the film downright vile. It’s so unconcerned with the very outcasts in our world that the previous films hoped to lift up that it figures it’s OK to celebrate, or at least not bother to argue against, their removal from society.

The series then becomes a brilliant metaphor dumbed down to shallow, disposable popcorn adventure, and that dumbing down is what angers me more than any problems with the film’s politics. After so much thought and care went into the first two “X-Men” movies, we now get a follow-up that is their polar opposite: recklessly tossed together with attention paid only to a couple big action scenes, the whims of a costar or two, and the hopes of a big opening weekend at the box office. This is a stupid, hateful, ignorant movie, one of the very worst comic book films ever made. For something this terrible to follow in the footsteps of two films so superior is beyond inexcusable. It is downright unforgivable.

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