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Superfreaks: (l-r) Janssen and Berry in X2: X-Men United.

Freaking Awesome
By Shawn Stone

X2: X-Men United
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.

They’re so tired: (l-r) Kukhianidze and Nolte in The Good Thief.

Petty Larceny

The Good Thief
Directed by Neil Jordan

The 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.

—Ann Morrow

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