X-Men: The Last Stand is, like The Da Vinci Code, undermined by impersonal direction, but this time it isn’t fatal: There are still lots of neat-o special effects. As in the Marvel comic and the last two film installments (directed by Bryan Singer), the gimmick is that evolution has produced a class of special individuals reviled or feared by the rest of humankind (and in heartbreaking cases, disowned by their own parents). We’re talking about shape-shifters, mind readers, telepaths, flame-people, ice-people, people with odd protuberances, and people who don’t just complain about the weather but actually do something about it. Under the care and tutelage of Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), more and more of these lost souls have embraced the label mutant the way gays have embraced the label queer: They are Mutant and Proud. The problem is the ones who are Mutant and Angry, led by Xavier’s combative counterpart, Magneto—played by Ian McKellen, once again stirring the pot.
In this (alleged) Last Stand, a mutant’s wealthy and distraught father (Michael Murphy) has developed a serum that can instantly de-mutanize, which enrages Magneto and a like-minded troupe of hothead young’uns, including a guy with retractable porcupine blades and a muscle-bound Cockney (“Juggernaut”) who has never met a wall he couldn’t pulverize. They liken the use of the serum to genocide and vow to destroy the “cure”—along with a lot of Homo sapiens (the term is an insult and always hissed). The movie has a very wild card that could turn out to be the militants’ ultimate weapon: Xavier’s dull assistant Jean (Famke Janssen), who sacrificed herself for her comrades at the end of X2, emerges from a lake with certain protective psychological barriers in her brain removed (long story). Her uncontrollable female fury unharnessed, she’s now called Phoenix and itching to suck dry or disintegrate the men who thought they could tame her. Janssen isn’t the world’s most animated actress, but she doesn’t need to be with FX like this.
Too bad the FX people couldn’t jazz up the new director, Brat—I mean Brett—Ratner, a youngish Hollywood hotshot with the skills of a briskly competent traffic cop but no discernible vision. With all the apocalyptic doings in The Last Stand—including the disintegration of some major characters—there ought to be a sequence or two that is not just impressive but lyrical, awe-inspiring, operatic. But there’s nothing as showstopping as the scene in X2 in which Magneto sucked the iron out of a guard’s bloodstream and, with supreme elegance, sailed out of his prison cell on a sort of metallic carpet. Ratner doesn’t do elegance, so this is just another big-budget B-movie.
It’s a fast and enjoyable B-movie, though, and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine brings some good stormy drama to the proceedings. (It’s not going to come from the character called Storm, played by the monotonic Halle Berry, or the increasingly stick-in-the-mud Rogue of Anna Paquin’s.) As a mutant-human diplomat, a blue hairy beast, Kelsey Grammer is all backslapping heartiness. Why is it that the only genuine uniters-not-dividers are in monster movies?