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A comic book flick stocked with substance - R.H. Joseph

There's no other way to say it: Shocked! Shocked!!

Never having cared too much for the original "X-Men" film I am tickled pink at the quality of "X2."

Considering the director of both, Bryan Singer, is responsible for noteworthy films in the past – "Apt Pupil" (1998), "The Usual Suspects" (1995) – it may be that the real surprise was the less than compelling first "X-Men" film.

"X2" has it all: great special effects, gifted actors (and smashing ones as well – Rebecca Romijn-Stamos may not be much of an actor but she possesses a molten sexuality guaranteed to send weak hearts into acute fibrillation), and the sort of crackerjack direction that compels an audience to keep shifting in their seats from the tension and concern for the characters.

Regarding the special effects, the film starts out with a visual bang and doesn't let up for a moment. The art directors, Geoff Hubbard and Helen Jarvis, have risen to a level worthy of the film's estimable performers, which include Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Brian Cox, and Allen Cumming.

Lest such a dramatis personnae tempt the unaware, it should be noted that fundamentally "X2" is comic book fare, albeit accomplished comic book fare.

Continuing a story line established in the first film, the human race (God bless 'em, you can't live with 'em and you can't live without 'em) has found a new group to scorn: mutants. And as is their wont, the humans want to eradicate all those different from themselves from the face of the earth.

(In a prescient note, the film makes quite clear how the public may be manipulated through appeals to this inherent hatred of those different from oneself in order to further a nefarious political agenda.)

The human proclivity to despise anyone exceeding a clearly delineated norm was illustrated more graphically in a prologue to "X-Men" featuring an archetypal instance of human bestiality, the aggressive assault upon European Jewry by Nazism. However, "X2" is no less sociologically penetrating.

The writers, Bryan Singer and David Hayter, have introduced a deeply religious Roman Catholic mutant, Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) thereby imbuing the fearsome Other with that most fundamental human attribute, spirituality. Clever touch!

As to those abilities rendering Nightcrawler a mutant, suffice it to say they, like those of the other Others, are absurd. So!

It's a comic book fantasy for goodness sake.

Because it's been some time (more than a few decades, actually) since I've read a comic (I'm proud to say I purchased my Incredible Hulk sweatshirt almost 40 years ago – size: "Gargantuan.") I cannot say whether the sort of mature themes appearing in X2 are currently commonplace in kid's mags.

These themes do, however, contribute to the accessibility of the film. Despite the nonsensical abilities of the mutants, these affairs of the heart help ground the character's identities in the familiar.

Dr. Jean Grey (the ravishing Famke Janssen) is loved by both Wolverine (the ravishing [so I'm told] Hugh Jackman) and Cyclops (James Marsden).

Illustrative both of the film's quality and its foundation in human emotions, Jackman brings the full weight of his craft to his expressive response to a situation involving his beloved. It may be a comic book flick but its cast imbues it with consequence.

By the same token, among the teen-age cast members Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) make clear they are eager to overcome that obstacle preventing a consummation of their mutual love. This honesty regarding adolescent sexuality is refreshing and will undoubtedly be appreciated even by those making alternative choices.

Another quality worthy of appreciation is the overall ambience of sexual equality. Sure, a bunch of old white guys are in charge – Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), and William Stryker (Brian Cox) – but the various women (black, Asian and white) are courageous, formidable warriors, and heroic in their self-sacrifice. Attentive viewers will notice a pilot on an Air Force fighter jet is also female.

Such acknowledgement of socio-political realities is another of the many rewarding facets of "X2."

Each of the X-Men (and X-Women) possesses some quality permitting them to vanquish evil doers. In and of itself such fantasies are commonplace cross-culturally and hardly worthy of remark. However, the preponderance of superhero flicks at the movies these days as well as the cop and lawyer shows dominating the tube suggests something larger afoot.

As good as it is, appreciating "X2" contextually may reveal a sense of helplessness on the part of the American public and an astute entertainment industry feeding this pervasive feeling of impotence.

Celluloid memories: Though young, Alan Cumming's talent is separating him from the pack. His performance in the otherwise OK action/adventure flick "Plunkett & Macleane" (1999) makes the film worth watching. It's a period piece about rogues, scalawags, and highwaymen with a modicum of charm, and definitely not for the young. Also not for the young is director Julie Taymor's film "Titus" (1999),

an adaptation of William Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." Visually stunning (as

one would expect from Taymor), in addition to Cumming the film stars Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. This

is not an easy film to watch but the adventurous will find

it rewarding. The same may

be said of "The Anniversary Party" (2001). Written and directed by Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh, in addition to these two the adult drama features a host of the couple's friends: Parker Posey, Phoebe Cates, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Jennifer Beals, and Gwyneth Paltrow. It's sturm und drang in the suburbs.