by Ed Symkus

First it was called X-Men 2. Then it was shortened to the hipper X2. When it finally got its actual title, it was because the filmmakers realized that the word "united" brought deeper meaning and relevance to the story of tolerance between normal human beings and mutants, or because at one point in the film it seems that bad guy mutants and good guy mutants might at long last be getting along with each other. Or maybe it was because Schwarzenegger's T3 is right around the corner.

It doesn't matter, because this follow-up to the 2000 box office bonanza X-Men will now join the ranks of such critically acclaimed and moneymaking sequels as Aliens and, yes, T2. Like X-Men, also directed by Bryan Singer, it sticks close to the popular Marvel comic book's mythology -- Professor Xavier, a man with incredible powers of the mind, runs a school for youngsters with equally special powers. He's aided by other so-called mutants, like himself, all of whom are hounded by a group of mutants gone wrong. Both sides are being challenged by government authorities who don't cotton to people -- or things -- that are "different." The first film might have been a comic book brought to life, but within all the special effects and fantastic circumstances, there were some strong messages delivered in all seriousness.

The sequel carries everything a step further, and in the right direction. If a flaw could be found the first time around, it was that there might have been a few too many characters, some of whom weren't developed enough. The solution? To hell with the idea that there was a problem. Bring on more characters!

So among the young trainees, Rogue (Anna Paquin) is joined by Bobby aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore, who did have a small part in the first) and John aka Pyro (Aaron Stanford). And joining the adult mutants are two new mysterious ones -- Kurt aka Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) and Yuriko aka Deathstrike (Kelly Hu). Fortunately there was a wise decision to cut back on some of the already established characters -- they're all here, but not a lot of Professor Xavier, Magneto, Cyclops, Jean Grey or Storm -- to focus instead on the far more interesting Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the fascinating Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, who has much more dialogue in this one) and the truly odd Nightcrawler, who opens the film in a wild, effects-packed White House sequence that's nothing less than startling.

The issue of tolerance remains front and center here, with another new character, the military scientist General William Stryker (Brian Cox) taking on the anti-mutant role as a man who is determined to rid the world of these freaks in whatever diabolical way it takes. One of the beauties of the whole thing is that it expertly removes layers from the characters, eventually leading, in some cases, to who or what they've been that's led them up to this point in the X-Men story. A word of warning, by the way, to anyone thinking they can just sit down and understand what this sometimes complicated story is all about without having seen the first one. This film jumps right in, not bothering to explain who has what powers or why certain people have certain attitudes. The film will most likely be very enjoyable to anyone watching, but those who know the set-up will enjoy it on a different level.

The main difference between the two films is that this one quite obviously has a bigger budget, a better look and much more dimension to it. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) spends a great deal of time in the mind-boggling machine he calls Cerebro (which Stryker is trying to build his own model of, for nefarious purposes). Magneto (Ian McKellen, all ham and wry in his splendid line delivery) spends much of his time still locked up in his magnificently designed hard-plastic prison. The beautiful and blue (but not true) Mystique does quite a bit more slithering around and makes sure there's a whole lot of shape-shifting going on.

And the sequel is both much funnier and much more violent than its predecessor. Comic scenes include a young mutant boy at Xavier's school who channel surfs a TV by endlessly blinking his eyes at it, as well as a less-than-subtle bit in which Iceman chills a bottle of Dr. Pepper in his own inimitable style. The violence comes via massive explosions and an exploration of the rampant bad temper of Wolverine -- something that was really only hinted at the first time around. Near the end there's a fantastic fight sequence between him and one of the female characters that sums up something else that's quite different about the sequel. It may still be called X-Men, but in this go 'round, at least in the power department -- well, to borrow a phrase from James Brown, it's a woman's, woman's, woman's world.

Publication date: 05/01/03

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