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X-cellent X-Men 

By Ed Symkus

It's been tried before, and it's met success, before fizzling out. Both the Superman and Batman comic books did tremendous box office when they crossed over to the movie screen. Alas, George Clooney has publicly taken credit for bringing about an end to the Batman business, and unless Nicolas Cage changes his mind about donning a certain red cape, there aren't going to be any more Superman films. Others, too, have tried to get off the ground, but haven't seen the light of day. There's still a Fantastic Four film sitting on a shelf somewhere, and there are rumors that Jim Cameron might someday get to make his Spiderman film.

For now, though, there's X-Men, a film that does an excellent job of capturing the flavor, the essence, of the popular Marvel comic book. In fact, it's one of the best comic-to-screen adaptations to date.

Essentially an effects-driven film with a story loosely holding together each dazzling visual treat, it tells of a very special group of men, women and children in the New York of the "not-too-distant future."

They're all, for the most part, humanoid in appearance, but there's something about each of them that separates them from whatever a normal human being is supposed to be. They're mutants, people with special powers. One can control minds, another can control magnetic fields, yet another can control the weather. One has laser beams for eyes, one is able to shoot lethal blades of steel from his fists, one is a shape-shifter.

The film tells us that there are good guy mutants and bad guy mutants. In a nice political twist that's reminiscent of the Joe McCarthy days of witch hunting, we're introduced to Senator Jefferson (Bruce Davison), a pol who's out to supposedly protect the world from the mutants by helping the public develop a fear of the unknown.

While that story could have held the film on a straight course, the script goes into lots of different directions, taking in battles between the two mutant sides, a plot by the bad ones to do in a large group of world leaders, and a look at some turmoil within the camp of the good mutants.

There's some solid, if stylistically opposite, acting from the leaders of each side. Patrick Stewart presents his Professor Xavier as a warm and steady teacher. Ian McKellen infuses his Magneto with malevolent glee until he turns downright nasty. There's a past between these two characters that's hinted at but never explored. But that's all right, because the film's main focus is on the mutants who make up each of their packs. And it's there that character study is made use of. But not too much. This is, after all, an action film. And the more explosions and fights and examples of mad science at work, the better. So we may find out that Wolverine (the very charismatic Hugh Jackman) was experimented upon when he was younger, or that Rogue (a wide-eyed Anna Paquin) once had a rather bad experience kissing a boy. But in a blink, the film is back to people and cars flying through the air, to a sleek jet hurtling toward possible disaster right by the Statue of Liberty, to a gaggle of loud noises and shocking visuals.

It's not actually an onslaught of overkill, such as some lesser director might have presented. Bryan Singer knows when to rein things in and when to let them go, as was hinted at in his earlier works, Apt Pupil and The Usual Suspects. Yes, he does go overboard quite a bit more this time out, but his tight control of the film never waivers, and this is simply a ball to watch.

Special recognition should go out to production designer John Myhre (Elizabeth) for his weird mix of metal and glass buildings and one really fantastic all-plastic set. But again, this film belongs to the battery of effects folks who have pulled out whatever stops they could think of, and have somehow made it all believable. The best special effect of all is probably the cobalt blue costume worn by the evil Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos). The question remains: If it isn't painted on, how on earth does it stay on?

Some of the storyline here doesn't make a whole lot of sense, especially where it concerns exactly what the bad mutants want to do to those who are not mutants. But this isn't really much of a think piece in the first place. And when the final scene comes down, the film leaves itself too blatantly open for a sequel to make the ending satisfying enough. But, that said, this is a lot of fun, and there will be a sequel, and there will be a sequel to that one, too. Say hello to the newest comic-to-screen franchise.

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