(l-r) Janssen and Berry in X2: X-Men United.
By Shawn Stone
Directed by Bryan Singer
This is the happy instance of a sequel that improves on an
original film. X2 is so much better than X-Men,
and in so many ways, that it’s hard to believe the same director
and cast were involved.
When last we left the X-Men—a group of mutant humans with
a variety of interesting disabilities that double as superhuman
skills—the evil, power-crazed Magneto (Ian McKellen) had been
packed off to a specially constructed federal pen; the benevolent
and wise Dr. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) had returned to his
school for young mutants in upstate New York; and Logan (Hugh
Jackman), aka Wolverine, spurned by his would-be lover and
fellow mutant Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), had lit out for
parts unknown to recover his memory and discover his past.
Happily, you don’t really need to know these gory soap-opera
details to enjoy X2. The conflict in X2 is simple,
and introduced with pleasing simplicity: A blue, shape- and
space-shifting German mutant named Kurt (Alan Cumming) tries
to assassinate the U.S. president, and the government overreacts
with typical vehemence by declaring war on all mutants. Soon,
Dr. Xavier’s stately Westchester compound is overrun with
commandos, and the freaks are running for their lives.
The fact that the conflict is between humans and X-Men is
the chief reason X2 is more interesting than X-Men.
No one wants to root for—or identify with—those pathetic,
fear-wracked, paranoid, “normal” human masses who just won’t
leave the mutants alone. (When the chief “bad” mutant, Magneto,
finally turns the tables on one of his tormentors in an extremely
painful manner, it’s very satisfying.) Sure, the film pays
lip service to peace and brotherhood, but at the same time
makes the mere mortals so violent and stupid it’s hard not
to lose all patience with them. Plus, it’s a special pleasure
to see all the mutants working together—even if they are still
comically rude to each other.
The emphasis in the first film was skewed towards Logan and
Rogue (Anna Paquin); this time Logan is still first among
X-Men, but Rogue is rarely on screen. While the filmmakers
still seem unable to come up with anything interesting for
Storm (Halle Berry) to do, Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos)
becomes a sly, amusing character. (The other attractive mutants
get love scenes—when will Berry get her turn?) Janssen has
most of the big dramatic moments, and she is terrific; Jackman,
having toned down the eerie Clint Eastwood imitation that
made his performance in the first film so weird, is much improved.
The two old English pros, McKellen and Stewart, are everything
one would expect.
Director Bryan Singer may create some of the sloppiest, least
interesting widescreen compositions in recent memory, but
he knows how to tell a complex story and keep things moving.
X2 may not be elegant, but it is dramatically logical
and often thrilling—in just the right pulpy, comic-book style.
so tired: (l-r) Kukhianidze and Nolte in The Good
Directed by Neil Jordan
Good Thief, a jazzy crime caper from that impresario of
atmosphere, Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview
With the Vampire), is a superficial intrigue with scads
of style, some of it dazzling, and some of it annoying. A
remake of the 1955 French noir classic Bob Le Flambeur,
the film has been Americanized with the casting of Nick Nolte
as Bob, an enigmatic, strung-out mastermind of nonviolent
crime operating in the South of France. This Bob (his last
name is now Montagnet) holds dual citizenship, and although
the ravaged Nolte makes for a terrifically cinematic crossbreed
between the traditional American antihero and a Gallic lost
soul, the film is completely oblivious to class consciousness,
and therefore plays out as a deft but empty game of one- upmanship.
According to Jordan’s remake, the caper isn’t so much about
a prole getting over on the moneyed elite as it is a tone
poem (complete with Leonard Cohen soundtrack) on a rugged
American being cooler than everyone else.
A heroin junkie and compulsive gambler, Bob begins his upward
spiral by rescuing a Russian teenager, Anne (Nutso Kukhianidze)
from prostitution. Bob’s intervention is strictly platonic—he’s
in too deep with his drug of choice for sex—but he lets her
crash at his boho digs and pushes her into a relationship
with his protégé, a young Algerian named Paulo (Said Taghmaoui).
After losing what’s left of his bankroll at the track, Bob
is recruited by a partner from the past (Gerard Darmon), who
has inside information on a cache of modernist masterpieces
held in a Monte Carlo casino run by a Japanese consortium.
The intell comes from the technological genius (Emir Kusturica)
who devised the casino’s impenetrable security system (a system
apparently inspired by the motion-sensor grid from Mission:
Impossible). Bob’s contribution is to come up with a plan,
and after going cold turkey, he delivers a doozy: Two heists,
one real, one a diversion, and both depending on the unwitting
participation of a snitch. It’s his Last Big Job, of course,
and one that will cement his legendary status among the criminal
masterclass of the Riviera. Bob’s motley crew of “heist guys”
(played effortlessly by an international cast) is the film’s
strongest drawing card.
The fly in the ointment of Bob’s oozy genius is the local
detective, Roger (Tcheky Karyo), a clichéd dimwit who tails
him everywhere, even to his Narcotics Anonymous meetings.
There’s a pithy exchange between louche Bob and the dogged
detective, wherein Bob explains that they have a codependent
relationship based on his illegal activities, without which
Roger wouldn’t have a reason for being. But eventually, Bob’s
terminally hip patter, delivered in an artificially clipped
mumble that perhaps only Nolte could pull off, becomes numbing.
That Anne employs the same mumble and conversational gambits
is sheer nuisance.
What the Russian waif does add to the wafts of irony that
encircle each encounter like clouds of cigarette smoke (the
usual Gauloises are replaced by Marlboro Lights) is her gamine
good looks: She might’ve just stepped out of an early portrait
by Picasso. Picasso is Bob’s favorite artist and the inspiration
for the film’s title: As quoted by an underworld art dealer
(Ralph Fiennes), Picasso didn’t borrow from his painter predecessors—he
stole. The Good Thief, however, merely filches from
its noir antecedents, and the caper’s linchpin, the mysteriously
simpatico relationship between Bob and Anne, requires more
interpretation than its worth.