X2: X-Men United

Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romjin-Stamos, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming. Directed by Bryan Singer. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (anamorphic). DTS 5.1 ES, Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French, Spanish). Two discs. 132 minutes. 2003. Fox Home Entertainment 2009206. PG-13. $29.98.

Picture *** 1/2
Sound *** 1/2
Film ***

A popular franchise takes off again with this well-done sequel to 2000's X-Men. In case you haven't kept up your subscription to Superheroes Monthly, our heroes (there are a lot of them here) are out to save the world again, this time from a fiendish plot, hatched by an evil government operative (is there any other kind?), to destroy all mutants.

In the X-Men universe, mutants are evolutionary leaps spun off from the human species, and while most of them look human (a new entry here, Nightcrawler, is a notable exception), each has some sort of superhuman power, with no two of them the same. In an obvious parallel to intolerance of all kinds, ordinary humans want to put the mutants on a tight leash. Some even want to wipe them out. Seriously complicating the issue is the fact that at least some of the mutants, led by the evil Magneto (he can't help himself—he had a difficult childhood), want to destroy ordinary humans.

Professor Charles Xavier, on the other hand, heads a band of good mutants who want only to live and let live. But to confront this new threat to their existence, they must forge an uneasy alliance with Magneto. The resulting series of action set-pieces and scripted mayhem is saved from the silliness of other superhero wannabe groups (such as the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) by good writing, a logical (well, sort of) plot, and an effective villain. X2 also has far better performances than you usually see in this sort of film, particularly from the three most important characters: Patrick Stewart's Professor Xavier, Ian McKellen's Magneto, and Hugh Jackman's Wolverine.

X2 is, in fact, Wolverine's film; his quest to learn where he really came from is at the heart of the plot. In fact, what he learns suggests that he isn't really a mutant at all, though the screenwriters cheerfully ignore this little detail—which, if you think about it, punches a big plot hole in Act 3. I'll leave it to you to puzzle out; if you haven't seen the film, any explanation of mine would reveal too much.

Extras on disc 1 include two commentary tracks, one by director Brian Singer and cinematographer Tom Sigel, and another by screenwriters Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, and David Hayter, along with producers Lauren Schuler Donner and Ralph Winter. On disc 2 are documentaries on the history of the X-Men and on the pre-production, production, and post-production details (including an early cut of an action scene without the special effects), 11 deleted scenes, three trailers, DVD-ROM features, and an odd public service announcement.

The video and audio quality are very good, if just a little short of the best in small ways—color a bit off at times, focus a little off in some shots—most of them likely due to the original photography, which was merely good, not exceptional, judging from the theatrical print I saw in a good theater. As to the sound, the dialog and effects are first-rate, but a rather 2-dimensional recording of the music score forces me to reduce what would otherwise be a four-star rating.

The X-Men films are crisply produced fun, and more than a step or two above typical summer action fare. X2, moreover, with a heavier dose of action and a more interesting plot, handily beats out its good but exposition-heavy predecessor.—TJN