Last stand? My ass. Billed as the climax of a trilogy, the third and weakest chapter in the X-Men series is a blatant attempt to prove there is still life in the franchise. And there is: just enough to pull a Star Trek and spawn a Next Generation saga. Hollywood won't kill this golden goose until it stops laying fourteen-carat eggs at the box office. X2, the best in the series, took in $215 million, beating the original by $58 million. And there are many more stories to be mined from the comics that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started for Marvel forty years ago. Audiences won't let go of that.
Or will they? It's way early in the summer sweeps, but already action flicks are taking a licking. M:i:III and especially Poseidon are barely ticking. X3 is meant to get the jolt junkies back in their seats. Hugh Jackman, the soul of the franchise as Wolverine — he of the retractable steel claws and the power to regenerate body parts — teams up with Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), who uses Wolfie as a furry fastball and hurls him into battle. Now that's efficiency.
The "fastball special" is an apt metaphor for the movie. Director Brett Ratner, who came in last minute when X vet Bryan Singer dropped out to helm Superman Returns, throws everything at the screen in the hope that something will stick. What results feels rushed, chaotic and stuffed with more characters than the script takes time to develop. The Ratner touch, exemplified by the wham of Rush Hour, lacks the resonant feeling Singer brought to the mutant heroes of the first two X-Men films. When Ratner tries for feeling, as he did disastrously in The Family Man and After the Sunset, you only feel numb. Coherence is not Ratner's strength; pow is. And when he turns on the juice, notably in a mutant battle to the death staged at Alcatraz, the true X factor kicks in.
The plot, cooked up by Zak Penn (X2) and Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith), concerns a cure for mutancy invented by Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), a tycoon who can't stand the fact that his son, Warren III (a terrific Ben Foster), is growing wings. The film opens with young Warren in the bathroom trying to saw off his pinions so his daddy won't be ashamed. Talk about phallic symbols! X3 is the gayest blockbuster to hit the multiplex since 1997's Batman and Robin, in which George Clooney wore a bat suit with nipples. Since Warren III can't cut off his dick, er, wings, he decides to flaunt it, calling himself Angel and letting his feathery appendage stretch to sixteen feet.
This kind of X-Viagra sits well with Magneto, a militant mutant leader played by the openly gay Sir Ian McKellen with the same drama-queen bravado he used to liven up The Da Vinci Code. "Nobody is going to cure us — we are the cure," says Magneto, who is Malcolm X to the Martin Luther King of Patrick Stewart's Professor Charles Xavier, a peacemaker with an open mind about the cure. For Rogue (Anna Paquin), a student at the professor's school for mutants, her "gift" for killing anyone she touches puts a serious crimp in her sex life with Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). Halle Berry is back with a bit more to do as the weathermaking Storm, but she looks bored doing it. Of the newcomers, including Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, who walks through walls, and Vinnie Jones as Juggernaut, who busts them down, the hardest not to notice is Kelsey Grammer, done up like a giant blue beach ball as Beast, an adviser to the prez on mutant affairs.
You'll notice that some major characters seem to die. But the series cannot be trusted on these matters (stay after the final credits for Exhibit A). Look at Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who went to her watery grave in X2, only to be reborn here as Phoenix. She's still possessed of the killer bod that has Wolverine howling at the moon but is now gifted with destructive powers that Magneto wants to harness to stop the cure from being manufactured on Alcatraz.
Ratner pulls out all the stops for the climax with Magneto turning the Golden Gate into his personal passageway to Alcatraz, where everything seems to explode at once, including Jean and Wolfie in an orgasmic display of rough sex that nearly saves the movie from its own too-muchness. I said nearly.