X-Men ‘Marvel’ on-screen with special effects

The conventional wisdom about Bryan Singer’s “X2:X-Men United,” the long-awaited sequel to 2000’s “X-Men,” is that it is “the best comic book movie ever.” This critical tactic seemingly damns the film with faint praise in several directions – there have never been more than a handful of such movies (discounting graphic novel adaptations such as “Road to Perdition”) and most have been viewed as middling to mediocre popcorn time-passers.

There is no doubt that “X2” towers over this group, including its predecessor, in every area. It does not, however, transcend its comic book roots in any meaningful way – aside from fleeting moments of kinesis only possible onscreen, the movie feels as if it has been ripped directly from the pages of a printed Marvel rag. How you deal with this fact has more to do with, well, how you deal with comic books than the film itself.

Visually, of course, “X2” – implausibly burdened with the subtitle “X-Men United” in some marketing campaigns – is an absolute knockout. The initial chapter in the mutant chronicles was exemplary, but never approached the visceral energy packed into most frames of the current tale. Blows land with additional force. Elemental fury, in the form of thundering currents of water and peals of controlled lightning, carries a certain resonance that was absent during the effect-laden imbroglios the first time around.

The new X-characters benefit most from this aptitude. The compulsive lighter clicker Pyro (Aaron Stanford) has only two scenes in which to display his mastery of flame and both leave you with a scorched feeling around your muzzle. Similarly, the brief exhibition of the rugged power of Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) is handled perfectly.

Bullets have no choice but to bounce off his armored hide, but the sound is completely unlike that of, say, a tank ricochet. The effects team creates a striking new sound and for the first time, you understand what “abs of steel” really means.

That same effects team will win awards, however, for their treatment of Nightcrawler (the heretofore-insufferable Alan Cumming), an escaped German circus freak with the acrobatic skills of Kerri Strug and the blue fur and prehensile tail of Bela Karolyi.

Nightcrawler possesses the ability to teleport instantaneously from one place to another via an alternate dimension. A cloud of smoke from that dimension and the sound ‘bamf’ accompanied the movement on the Marvel pages, leaving many skeptical of the ability of Singer et al to pull off a convincing replication. Only once do they resort to “Matrix”-style slowdowns – incredible pacing and camerawork during the bulk of the scenes creates a revolutionary framework for movement, something completely lacking in last year’s “Spider-Man.” You will believe that a man can tumble.

All of the mutants from the first film reprise their roles. Magneto (Ian McKellan) and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) continue to lead their respective coteries, featuring the telepathic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the ruby quartz-bespectacled Cyclops (James Mardsen) and, of course, the cigar-chomping Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, in yet another career-defining performance). The audience is thankfully spared the inanity of “X-Men” villans Toad and Sabretooth and is instead treated to a considerable amount of additional screentime for the appropriately-named Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, and how I hate writing that last name), who diverges from her comic book persona more and more with each scene.

The plot, too, takes considerable liberty with the original works. Nominally a translation of the “God Loves, Man Kills” storyline, the script (penned by David Hayter and Zak Penn) manages to introduce a new element to the mutant mix in 10 minutes. This addition is William Stryker (Bryan Cox of “Super Troopers”), an ambiguously-titled military scientist consumed by public and private problems with the alternatively-genomed. Stryker is behind Nightcrawler’s film-opening rampage and quickly gains presidential sanction for an attack on the Xavier Institute campus.

That attack scene is perhaps the height of the film, offering scenes of federal child abuse, Elian Gonzalez-style, interposed with a long-awaited berserker rampage from Wolverine.

This is not kids’ stuff – death and carnage rules here, the vulnerability of the sleeping students contrasting with the effective powerlessness of the government troops in the claustrophobic mansion halls. It’s dark, it’s dirty and it’s immensely satisfying to see Jackman’s claws finally put to good use.

Escalation ensues, and the action inevitably leads back to Canada, where the mutants, unsurprisingly, feel right at home. Non-comic fans are more likely to be surprised by what lies beneath the tundra, but rest assured that plenty of double-crossing and divided loyalties are displayed before the inevitably-explosive finale. It’s nearly drawn into the mid-movie malaise that plagued “X-Men,” but the script is more balanced this time, offering intermediate action scenes to tide viewers over.

This is, of course, the problem. Despite a better effort, “X2’s” dialogue is still too predictable and typed. Here’s the religious speech; oh, here’s the one about responsible use of powers. In the actual comics, limitations such as these have long ceased to be a problem, as a reader familiarity with the characters allows for a level of self-reference and banter that has historical weight and relevance. As in “X-Men,” the best lines are reserved for Jackman and McKellan – with few exceptions, everyone else talks as if their lines were written by Stan Lee 40 years ago. Stanford and Cumming are accomplished-enough actors to make this fly – Storm (Halle Berry) and Iceman (Sean Ashmore) are left with less to work with.

For fans, this means little. A good story and spectacular execution carry more weight than dated dialogue and few will be disappointed with those aspects of the film.

The greater disappointment is that Singer could not take it to the next level in this incarnation. Perhaps Ang Lee’s “The Hulk” will be able to achieve what “X2” could not. For now, this mutant movie may have pushed the boundary of what is possible for a comic book brought to life.