X-Men: The Last Stand (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

For X-Men viewers, this is probably as straightforward as it gets: if you liked the first two, you're likely to appreciate the third. X-Men: The Last Stand isn't as taut or satisfying as X-Men 2, but it's better constructed and better paced than the original X-Men. The differences in quality between the three are minor, however; and, despite the change in directors (Brett Ratner replacing Bryan Singer, who bolted to helm Superman Returns), there seems to be a single vision. X-Men: The Last Stand is the first blockbuster of the 2006 summer season that hasn't caused me to shake my head with disappointment. It delivers pretty much what's expected.

It should be noted that X-Men: The Last Stand diverges significantly from its comic book source material, so that may result in issues for die hard fans. Those expecting the "Dark Phoenix" saga to be replicated on screen are in for an unpleasant 104 minutes. X-Men: The Last Stand uses the "Dark Phoenix" premise for an aspect of the film, but it doesn't unfold the way it did on the printed page. Some people are going to be offended by this. But the movies are taking a different road. They should be allowed to do so, and be judged on the merits of that detour.

Once again, at the core of the story lies the conflict between humans and mutants. Human scientists have discovered a way to "suppress the mutant gene," effectively turning mutants into human beings - permanently. The mutant community is divided about this. There are those, like Rogue (Anna Paquin), who see this as an opportunity to shed powers that have become a burden. Others, like Magneto (Ian McKellen), view this as an attempt at (human) racial cleansing. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his X-Men initially sit on the sidelines, urging caution and tolerance in the face of a growing firestorm. Magneto, however, rallies an army with the intention of thwarting the would-be genocide and taking the battle to the humans. But there's a wrinkle. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) has returned from the dead, but she's no longer the rational woman she once was. Now, she's the Phoenix, a creature of appetite and almost limitless power, and she has elected to side with Magneto. Even the combined powers of Storm (Halle Berry), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Beast (Kelsey Grammer), and the others may not be enough to touch - let alone stop - her.

There's a lot going on in this film - too much, really, especially considering that it clocks in at well under two hours. This leads to a cramped, rushed feeling. The stories and relationships are not given time to breathe. Those expecting character development won't find much here - this film is more about sustaining momentum. There's a sense that the material jammed into this movie might have made a great, epic-length feature.

X-Men: The Last Stand gives us most of the X-Men we have grown to know over three movies (Professor X, Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Iceman, Rogue, Jean Grey), returning mutants with bigger roles (Kitty Pryde, Pyro, Colossus), and newcomers (Angel, Beast, Juggernaut). It poses ethical questions about genetics and race. There are some great action sequences and impressive special effects (including a flashback de-aging of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen which is remarkable). There are moments of low-key humor and understated pathos (the movie does not try for manipulation during its tragedies).

Too many characters is a problem. At times, it feels like they're fighting for screen time. Storm's role has been beefed up to accommodate Halle Berry's desire to be more Snow White than one of the seven dwarves, but all this does is give us a greater opportunity to reflect upon how badly she is miscast. Wolverine isn't as prominent as in the previous installments, but he still has his share of memorable moments and corrosive one-liners. The losers are Professor X, Cyclops, and Rogue - three veterans whose individual screen times don't run into the double digits. Ellen Page (Hard Candy) becomes the third actress to play Kitty Pryde, although I doubt anyone but her two predecessors noticed the change. Kelsey Grammer is a nice addition, joining the blue-skinned brigade (Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler is absent, but Rebecca Romijn's Mystique is still around). Ian McKellen is as delightful as ever and, as the Phoenix, Famke Janssen provides an opponent truly worthy of the X-Men.

Rush Hour director Brett Ratner picks up where Bryan Singer left off. The transition is seamless. In fact, anyone unaware of the change at the top might not recognize that one has occurred. Ratner does nothing to call attention to himself. Based on what shows up on screen, it would seem that his vilification in some fan circles has been unwarranted. His presence behind the camera has not "ruined" the X-Men franchise. Instead, he has provided an entertaining episode that offers a sense of closure, if not complete satisfaction (there's too little emotional resonance for that).

X-Men: The Last Stand provides a post credit sequence (of about 20 seconds) for those who want to stay. My advice, however, is to leave as soon as the credits start rolling. The movie works better without this scene, and it could be argued that this is the film's biggest misstep. I wish I hadn't hung around to see it, and I think most who miss it will have a better overall opinion of the film than those who stick it out. It doesn't play fair with the audience, and cheapens one of the film's most poignant elements.

It's hard to say whether or not there will be more X-Men movies. The groundwork has been laid for additional sequels, but there undoubtedly will be changes, and one suspects that if there is a fourth installment, few of the original mutants will be on board. It's hard to imagine Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin, or Hugh Jackman returning (although the latter may get his own spin-off movie). If this is the send-off for the "first team," it's a successful one, with enough moments of greatness to compensate for the ones that aren't so great.

X-Men: The Last Stand (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2006-05-26
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1