The vaunted renaissance of Marvel movies was built on the work of a mere two directors: Sam Raimi, he of the flawed but fun Spider-Man films; and Bryan Singer, who in two X-Men outings climbed to the pinnacle of comics-to-screen translation. Singer is gone for X-Men: The Last Stand ' vanished to work his magic on Marvel rival Superman ' but the interpretation of the mutant-exalting franchise that's been handed in by hack replacement Brett Ratner isn't the atrocity some fanboys feared. It isn't genuinely good, mind you; still, compared to embarrassments like Daredevil and The Hulk, it warrants a small sigh of relief.
For months, the 'net has been abuzz with rumors of the 'creative changesâ?� that 20th Century Fox honcho Tom Rothman had been pushing Singer to make, and which lap dog Ratner was allegedly happy to provide ' like an intensified atmosphere of sexual heat, more screen time for wig-wearing prima donna Halle Berry and the gratuitous deaths of some major characters. The worst one can say of the mythology-altering events that do indeed transpire in The Last Stand is that they're handled too lackadaisically to register any lasting impact. That ennui dogs the film in general, which seems to revere the considerations of deadline and budget above all else. (Even star Hugh 'Wolverineâ?� Jackman is on autopilot.)
Its saving grace lies in the secondary directive that Rothman reportedly delivered to Ratner: While incorporating those 'improvementsâ?� Singer so assiduously resisted, try to ape his basic style as closely as possible. What emerges is a frequently serviceable photocopy of an adult adventure drama. Last year's Fantastic Four, in contrast, was assembled by idiots for idiots, but The Last Stand was put together by a no-
talent for an audience that's shown itself to possess a certain level of discernment. (Yes, that's an improvement.)
The emphasis is again on souped-up identity crises as the movie explores two major plotlines. In one, science discovers a 'cureâ?� for the mutant condition that defines the X-Men and their freaky adversaries. (The processing facility for this wonder elixir is located on Alcatraz Island, which a government official says is 'the safest location we could findâ?�; how convenient that it's also among the most photogenic.) In the second plot, telepathic X-Man Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who was stone-cold dead at the end of X2, miraculously returns as the all-powerful Phoenix and starts laying waste to most things in her path, eventually forming an alliance of convenience with arch villain Magneto (Ian McKellen).
While these characters move about the chessboard of four-color anguish, they still have plenty of time to dither over their feelings of loneliness and alienation ' the element of the X-franchise its audience of disenfranchised garage-dwellers responds to most instinctually. There's a panoply of Singer-esque visual gags and scripted barbs, made possible by a multitude of ancillary players the movie introduces to varying effect. The strongest impression is made by Ellen Page (Hard Candy) as Kitty Pryde, whose chief superhuman abilities are to walk through walls and out-act performers a few decades her senior. I also enjoyed Kelsey Grammer's installation as Beast, a furry blue mutant who just happens to hold a top-level government job.
Strangely, it's when Ratner turns his attention to grand-scale action that he most reliably loses his way. A hopeless day player, he's blind to the small details that make a film feel real ' like getting the extras in a mass anti-cure protest scene to look genuinely interested in the cause they're supposed to be espousing. The Last Stand is fitfully entertaining, but lurking at the edge of almost every frame is a reminder that you're watching a genre exercise with no real talent or affection at its core. You want that kind of virtue, you have to call Superman. Let's hope.