There's a lot to keep up with in X2, Bryan Singer's follow-up to his summer 2000 blockbuster X-Men. The original seemed less like a movie than a set-up for the inevitable sequels. We learned the background, we met all the characters, there was a big fight and the credits rolled. It was a fun ride but there was an inescapable feeling of "is that it?" Not so this time. X2 has so many characters and so much plot that 133 minutes hardly seems enough to fit it all in. The film-makers take it for granted that you've seen X1 and if you haven't, you'd better rent it because you have little hope of following this otherwise.
The story picks up more or less where the first one left off. Growing numbers of mutants with strange powers are causing panic worldwide and there are those who want the problem - and the mutants - eradicated. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a powerful psychic, runs a school for mutant children and struggles to keep the more bigoted humans and the less patient mutants from starting an all-out war. On his side are the four X-Men - Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), an indestructible warrior with fearsome metal claws; Cyclops (James Marsden), whose eyes project a laser beam; Storm (Halle Berry), who can control the weather and Dr Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who may not have a cool name but can manipulate her surroundings by thought. Among the school's pupils are Rogue (Anna Paquin), who channels energy, Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), who freezes things, and the angry, firestarting Pyro (Aaron Stanford), who seems modelled a little too closely on Anakin Skywalker.
On the side of evil is Xavier's arch-enemy Magneto (Ian McKellen), whose gift is magnetism and who harbours a grudge against humanity. He's still languishing in the plastic prison built for him in the first film, although his principal henchmutant, the shapeshifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) has an ingenious escape plan. There's also a new human villain, the sinister General Stryker (Brian Cox), who hates mutants with as much passion as Magneto hates humans, though he keeps the mysterious Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) for protection. When the American president is attacked and nearly killed in the White House by teleporting mutant Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), Stryker takes the opportunity to bend the president's ear and get authorisation for an assault on Xavier's school.
With a star name in almost every part, the makers of the X-Men films obviously subscribe to the theory pioneered by Irwin Allen in the 1970s that special effects blockbusters need overqualified casts. Why have some unknown starlet at the controls of the X-Men's jet when you can get Oscar winner Halle Berry? In such a fast-paced, convoluted plot, nobody's acting skills are put to the test but, unlike Star Trek: Nemesis, no one gets sidelined and the witty one-liners and memorable moments are rationed out fairly. Hugh Jackman once again makes an appealing hero. These days it's a pleasant surprise to see a leading man who's unashamedly macho and prone to making moves on his friends' women. Distinguished British thespians Patrick Stewart, Brian Cox and Ian McKellen lend their stage gravitas to the dramatic scenes while Anna Paquin, Aaron Stanford and Shawn Ashmore give the film teen appeal and Halle Berry, Famke Janssen, Kelly Hu and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos add up to enough glamour for even the most demanding Maxim readers. Still, the best performance is by Alan Cumming, who manages to make Nightcrawler a funny, poignant and original character.
Director Bryan Singer once made The Usual Suspects so it's no surprise that he handles his actors well and keeps the plot comprehensible, no easy task with this film. When it comes to delivering spectacle though, he's only adequate. Not that the action is badly done but, considering the budget and scale of the film, there are precious few thrills and not a single moment to make you go "wow". Some of the effects are actually quite ropey, especially the workings of Xavier's mind-control device and a wave effect at the end. The production design is for the most part functional, if not ugly and the palette is grey, grey and more grey. And while there's no shortage of story, when it's finally over, we're pretty much back where we started. I don't mean to damn X2, I recommend it and there's much to say in its favour. It's more intelligent than the average blockbuster, it's well acted, funny and dramatic in all the right places and overall a solid piece of Saturday night entertainment. It matches, even betters the original in most respects and should please fans. But, and there is a but, if you think a good action film should do more than entertain but also surprise and thrill, you may feel a little disappointed. X2 gives you your money's worth but not much more.