Genetic mutants with superpowers and super-neuroses, the X-Men return in “X2: X-Men United” unfettered by having to explain who they are, where they came from, and what’s up behind the walls of that fancy prep school in suburban New York. You know, the one populated by kids who can walk through steel, breathe fire and emit glass-shattering screams. (Where’s Edison Schools Inc. when you really need it?)
Headed by the wheelchair-bound Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, looking exceptionally dapper in a series of tailored suits and silk ties), the School for the Gifted, of course, is home to several generations of mutant misfits that the good professor is trying to keep on the right path: using their freakish powers for the benefit of humankind. Wolverine (Hugh Jackson) still has that funny coif, fierce temperament and retractable talons. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) continues to furrow her brow while exercising her ESP, although lately, she laments, “my telepathy has been off.” And there are Storm (Halle Berry), Cyclops (James Marsden) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), all hanging out waiting for the action to begin.
It doesn’t take long. Once again directed by Bryan Singer, who gets to work with a bigger budget than he had in 2000’s “X-Men” (the special effects have definitely improved), “X2” starts in the White House, where the Oval Office is the site of some deadly gymnastics, as a hooved blue guy with a tail knocks off a slew of Secret Service agents and comes THIS close to spiking the Prez. He doesn’t get the commander-in-chief, but he gets his point across: a message nailed to the President’s desk that reads “Mutant Freedom Now.”
Mutants, it seems, are everywhere, and there are hawkish types in the government who don’t like them, who want them to register, no less. After the attack on Pennsylvania Avenue (the mutant in question, played by Alan Cumming, is a Bible-quoting, tattooed Teuton), William Stryker (Brian Cox), a former Army commander who heads the mutants-must-go contingent, is given the OK to harass Professor X and company. That Stryker has a personal agenda, and personal history with the mutants, doesn’t bode well.
Where “X-Men” pitted good mutants against bad as the world looked on, “X2” aligns Professor X’s crew with the malevolent Magneto (Ian McKellen) and the morphing Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), united, at least for now, in battle against Stryker and his saucy aide-de-camp, Yuriko (Kelly Hu). (Who, in turn, has something mutant-y up HER sleeve.) There are all sorts of complicated comic-book things going on: an attempt to wrest and replicate Xavier’s all-powerful Cerebro gizmo; revelations about the origins of Wolverine’s surly disposition and adamantine claws; teen romance (Rogue and Iceman); turbulence in the X-Jet; and that blue guy, Nightcrawler, reciting psalms and spewing ooze.
In Movie II, the X-Men again function as universal outcasts: The story’s Mutant Registration Act certainly echoes the current climate of domestic xenophobia, and as hate-objects the mutants could represent any number of racial or religious entities. There’s even a veiled and amusing “outing” scene in which Bobby Drake, aka Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), comes out of the closet and confesses to his parents and younger brother that he’s really a, well, a “mutant.”
It would have been nice to see more of the not-so-everyday goings-on at Xavier’s school, and more of what’s bothering Jean Grey (besides the competing ardor of Wolverine and Cyclops) and more of a global perspective in this latest mutant crisis. As it is, most of “X2’s” action is restricted to the Northeast Corridor, with a climactic face-off in the western Rockies, where, in typical blockbuster fashion, everything goes “kablooey” and “ka-bam.” Dams break, vehicles explode, and the world is safe for another day, and another “X-Men” sequel.