‘X-Men’ – spectacle, but little substance


The nuance and complexity of character that made the first two “X-Men” movies more compelling than the typically mindless summer blockbuster are gone in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” the third and allegedly final installment in the comic-inspired franchise.

In their place this time, you get flying, flaming cars and a totally naked Rebecca Romijn. Like, really naked – not just covered in blue body paint.

You could call this The Brett Ratner Effect. Everyone’s fears were true about what would happen when the director of the buddy-comedy “Rush Hour” movies took over the “X-Men” series from Bryan Singer, who has moved on to this summer’s hotly awaited “Superman Returns.”

Ratner seems more concerned with spectacle than substance, offering a film that’s shorter than its predecessors (2000’s “X-Men” and 2003’s “X2: X-Men United”) yet crammed with more characters and more subplots, all of which come and go as quickly as Wolverine flashes and retracts his metal claws.

What made those movies interesting was the humanity, for lack of a better word, of its mutant characters. They were tormented by their unwanted superpowers; they were conflicted about how best to use them. They sought refuge in the guidance of even-tempered mutant leader Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and in each other. They experienced the same sorts of anxieties and insecurities as the rest of us, but eventually carved out a place for themselves in the world where they felt safe, accepted.

Yes, it was (and still is) a little ridiculous to watch grown men and women running around in weird hair and head-to-toe leather, and in “The Last Stand” the most distracting bit of casting comes from Kelsey Grammer, who plays Dr. Henry McCoy, or Beast. The presence is there, the voice is there, the gravitas should be there. But then there’s Grammer with blue face paint and wild fur sprouting all over his head, stuffed into a business suit and trading quips with Hugh Jackman like:

“Wolverine, I hear you’re quite an animal.”

“Look who’s talking.”

Grammer is more believable providing the voice of Sideshow Bob on “The Simpsons.” Then again, the basis is a Marvel Comic. Either you’re going to go with the conceit or you’re not.

But everyone involved with this film purports it to be the meatiest and most relevant of the trilogy, with its premise that scientists have developed a cure for mutancy, and all the social and political implications that follow. Do the X-Men give up their powers and conform to be like everyone else? Or do they keep them and maintain the qualities that made them unique – and, frequently, ostracized?

It’s all very high concept, and would seem applicable to anyone living on the fringe, but Ratner and screenwriters Zak Penn (who co-wrote part two) and Simon Kinberg (“Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) merely skim the surface. Protesters stand outside government buildings where these new shots are being administered, holding signs and chanting, “We don’t need a cure!” Halle Berry’s Storm, who can manipulate weather, says she doesn’t want a cure. (And why should she? Her powers are among the coolest of all.) Meanwhile, young Rogue (Anna Paquin), who’s stuck with the fact that everyone she touches dies, thinks it’s not such a bad idea.

And that’s about as far as anyone gets in terms of digging into the film’s inherent philosophical issues; “The Last Stand” is the rare movie that actually could have run a bit longer, if only to give us a chance to think.

Instead, we get giant battles between the good X-Men and the bad mutants, led by Ian McKellen’s metal-moving Magneto (still wearing that idiotic helmet, it’s so beneath him). Besides Romijn’s shapeshifting Mystique and the flame-shooting Pyro (Aaron Stanford), he’s added to his arsenal a mutant with spikes sticking out of his face, another who can sense other mutants, and a third appropriately named Juggernaut (soccer star Vinnie Jones, dressed in S&M gear) who simply plows through everything in his path.

Is your mind boggled yet? We haven’t even mentioned the new mutants on the side of all that’s pure and right, including Angel (Ben Foster), who has wings growing out of his back (hence the name) and whose father is responsible for the dreaded cure.

They’re all superficial concepts, pawns populating the enormous computer-generated set pieces, the biggest of which features Magneto ripping the packed Golden Gate Bridge from its moorings and manipulating the span to make it extend to Alcatraz Island. (Somehow it’s just not as much fun to watch people running for their lives anymore, even under the guise of summer entertainment.)

The most intriguing character of all, Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey, has arisen after dying at the end of “X2” and she’s more screwed up than ever – another plot that feels truncated. Perhaps the most powerful mutant ever with her keen telekinesis and telepathy, Jean also has a dark side, a facet to her personality where she can’t control her abilities, and wreaks total havoc.

Part Sissy Spacek in “Carrie,” part Linda Blair in “The Exorcist,” Jean can now kill people just by staring at them; she can cause an entire house to levitate and strip it bare. More often than not, though, she just stands around with a blank expression on her face, looking bored and a little lost.

Even if you don’t have superpowers, you know how she feels.