by Marty Demarest

Technically, the title of this movie is X2: X-Men Unite, but many have taken to calling it X-Men 2, or just X2. Fortunately, the title is the only confusing thing about the movie, which is so slick and clever that, if you take away the comic book characters, action-oriented story, massive special-effects budget and celebrity cast, it could pass as a serious art film.

OK, maybe that's a stretch. But this past summer, when X2 hit theaters, it managed that rare double-whammy: Both critics and paying customers liked the movie. Returning director Bryan Singer didn't mess with the formula that worked the first time around. But he also didn't assume that everyone who likes a stylish Hollywood action film was an idiot. And so in giving audiences more of what they were craving, he also gave them more complex characters, an edgier plot and a few challenging hidden messages.

The film boasts some heavy-hitters like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, along with the Oscar-luminous Halle Berry. Finding these people in a summer sequel at all is a sign that the characters have a solid complexity that most Hollywood films avoid. McKellen, as the imprisoned villain Magneto, is both wearier and warier than he was the first time around. He exudes a fatalistic bemusement that is as much due to the film's script as it is to McKellen's performance. Even Hugh Jackman, who could easily get by playing the razor-fingered Wolverine as nothing more than a hunk of manflesh, gets to explore the character's more paternal side. (Never fear, he also explores his rip-apart-the-hot-enemy-chick side as well.)

Another surprise is the way that Singer and his cast present the idea of tolerance. Singer bravely works this into X2 by having one of his mutants "come out" as a mutant to his parents. The joke is obvious, and tastefully presented. And it's followed through to its logical conclusion when the passionately Christian Nightcrawler defends his faith as an essential part of his character when his fellow mutants criticize his belief system. Tolerance is a big issue in X2, and no amount of special effects (which are all excellent, by the way) can undermine that. It's the work of a confident director and cast, and deserves to be seen by those who are too "smart" to see a popcorn flick. If only the Oscar-hopeful flicks hitting theaters this season were this well made.

Publication date: 11/27/03

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