X-Men: The Last Stand

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Directed by Brett Ratner, 2006.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Kelsey Grammar, Patrick Stewart, Shawn Ashmore, Anna Paquin, Aaron Stanford, Ellen Page, Ben Foster.
104 mins.

Struggling to cope with the loss of telekinetic team member Jean Grey, the X-Men are presented with a new problem; a drugs company has produced a cure for mutation, which immediately gains the ire of war-mongering mutant supremacist Magneto. At the same time, strange things are happening at the scene of Jean’s demise…

The Last Stand turned out to be anything but. It was followed by three further X-Men instalments in ten years, as well as three Wolverine spin-offs and two TV shows – with plenty more on the way. While critical response was mixed, it was (and remains) the most successful movie of the series at the US box office.

Whilst concluding plotlines laid down by X-Men and X2, The Last Stand also takes inspiration from two of the most successful comic stories; the Dark Phoenix saga, which saw heroic Jean Grey turn to the dark side, and Gifted, a story about a cure to mutation created by Avengers-director Joss Whedon.

The biggest change is behind the camera. Director Bryan Singer, who helmed the two previous X-entries, planned to do the same for the third but chose to make Superman Returns instead. Matthew Vaughn, who would go on to direct X-Men: First Class, briefly came aboard but dropped out due to what he saw as an impossibly tight schedule. Finally Brett Ratner, known for the Rush Hour action-comedy trilogy, took the director’s chair.

Previous X-entries were plate-spinning exercises that intricately balanced multiple storylines and characters at once. The Last Stand in contrast is more a meat-and-potatoes actioner, frantically tying up subplots as it races towards the next set piece over an inexplicably short 104-minute running time. As such, it isn’t an epic conclusion to the trilogy, often just touching on elements which deserve greater attention, and the hurried feel jars with the calculated, contemplative approach of previous entries. Yet the speed at which the events unravel, combined with the intensity of the drama, make for quite a ride, unpredictable and edgy.

Heroic and villainous line-ups both receive a shake-up; several major characters from the previous instalments are dispatched with almost indecent haste to make way for the new blood, while old favourites who survive the cull have to battle for screen time with the newcomers. Anna Paquin’s Rogue, originally the audience entry figure for the series, is almost lost in the shuffle.

Thankfully the new joiners are largely winners. As the leonine blue Beast, Kelsey Grammar is both charming and frightening, convincing as both great intellect and fierce warrior. One of the series’ most successful translations from page to screen, Beast adds a welcome weirdness to the X-Men’s line-up of otherwise beautiful people. Ellen Page walks through solid objects as Kitty Pryde, an X-rookie who appeared briefly in the previous films played by different actresses. She’s chiefly here to rival Rogue for the affections of Iceman (Ashmore); somehow the film manages to fit in a second romantic triangle despite everything else going on. A lesser addition is Ben Foster’s Angel, who, like Rogue, struggles with the idea of curing his mutation – in his case, it’s largely forced upon him as his father invented it.

Despite the comings and goings, Hugh Jackman’s razor-clawed Wolverine is still front and centre – but he’s stopped searching for secrets of his lost memories, a plotline saved for X-Men Origins: Wolverine, released three years later. Halle Berry’s lightening-conductor Storm gets more of a look-in than before – she’s the only X-Man to oppose the cure – but she still doesn’t get a storyline to call her own.

Major characters from previous instalments are dispatched with almost indecent haste to make way for the new blood

The main new face on the opposing team is Vinnie Jones’ Juggernaut, sadly a far-cry from the outsize behemoth found in the comics. Other four-colour characters such as Psylocke and Calisto are brought in, but altered to such a degree it seems a pointless exercise when new characters would have done just as well.

But who needs them when you have the arrival of Dark Phoenix – telekinetic Jean Grey (Janssen), risen from a watery demise in the last movie – the most powerful mutant of all, now eager to indulge her previously-repressed destructive desires. In the comic books she destroyed a world of five billion aliens on a whim. Her death count is dialled down here, but she is no less dangerous – claiming the lives of more than one series regular before the film is over.

Superheroes turning to the dark side are a staple of the genre – Superman III and Spider-Man 3 for instance – but in those movies moral corruption is simply another challenge for the characters to eventually triumph over. The Last Stand suggests something much darker; Jean Grey has always harboured a malicious nature – a flashback reveals her as a rude and antagonistic child –  and it’s only her telepathic mentor Professor X who has kept her from unleashing it before.

Famke Janssen does wonders with what little time she has, establishing Jean’s conflicting personalities, alternatively sympathetic and demonic. Back from the grave and prone to staring out malevolently from beneath long locks, she evokes the ghost girls of Japanese horror movies such as The Ring. Effortlessly reducing buildings and people to ash in seconds, she’s a threat to make even Magneto scarper.

It’s not just Jean who has returned fiery and antagonistic; the entire film has a tense, prickly vibe, with seemingly everyone at each other’s throats. Drama is conflict, but  the script goes overboard with it: Logan and Storm, Logan and Beast, Rogue and Bobby – and that’s just the first ten minutes. By the time Magneto callously turns on Mystique, you begin to wonder if it’s something in the water.

The Last Stand is on surer ground when it comes to action – in that regard it’s an improvement on previous entries. Ratner is far more comfortable with set pieces than Singer, and with the aid of a $200m budget, the mutants powers are unleashed like never before. One notable showdown sees a whole house floating in mid-air as Jean wages furious telekinetic battle with Professor X, while the other mutants give up hitting each other and just cling on for dear life. The finale sees the X-Men fighting together the way fans had been clamouring for, battling against whatever Magneto can throw at them – including a barrage of flaming cars and an army of rebel mutants.

Though not quite up to the standards of the series’ best entries, The Last Stand is a worthy instalment. It crackles with drama, angst and action, and in the form of Dark Phoenix, the tragedy so inherent on the comic is bought effectively to the screen.

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Review by Ul

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