The legions of fans who have been following the cult comic-book series "X-Men" for decades should be well pleased by its live-action version. "X-Men," the movie, has managed to shake off the page-to-screen comic-book curse and emerge not only as a stylish and respectable adaptation but also as one of the more satisfying movies of an otherwise disappointing summer.
"X-Men" is definitely not highbrow entertainment, and its appeal will be strongest for young filmgoers who can still be jazzed by nifty special effects and science-fiction flights of fancy. But thanks to the smarts and taste of its director, Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects," "Apt Pupil"), "X-Men" retains the goofy appeal of comic-book kitsch without making it painfully hokey.
Put another way, the movie is respectful of its source material without being the least bit self-important. "X-Men" may have hit the Platonic ideal of comic-book movies, coming across as lightweight, sophisticated, wacky and straightforward all at the same time.
Here's another thing going for "X-Men": It has to be the first movie to feature a bona fide British knight playing someone named Magneto. One of the joys of this futuristic bauble is watching Ian McKellan as such a silkily serpentine villain, whose boyhood experiences during World War II imbued him with a deep mistrust of his fellow men and some serious metal-bending powers thanks to an anomalous genetic mutation.
As "X-Men" opens - in Washington, in the not-too-distant future - Magneto's disgust with the human race doesn't seem too far off the mark. His fellow mutants - who have grown in numbers over the years - have the country in a tizzy of paranoia, inflamed by Sen. Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), who wants to hunt them down and force them to register with the government. "I have in my hand a list ..." the senator declares, recalling Sen. Joe McCarthy in his self-righteous Red Scare tactics.
To Magneto this means war. But to his old friend and fellow mutant Charles Xavier (played by another venerable British actor, Patrick Stewart), it's a chance for humans and mutants to find mutual understanding and peace. Although the real enemy of "X-Men" is intolerance - Singer does a good job of weaving contemporary themes of xenophobia, AIDS paranoia and anxieties surrounding the Human Genome Project into this allegorical tale - Xavier and his band of mutant superheroes find themselves trying to foil Magneto's scheme to take over the world.
Actually, the term superheroes may be a misnomer. One of the charms of cartoonist Stan Lee's original characters is that they are such flawed good guys. With names like Cyclops (who can destroy anything just by looking at it), Storm (who can control the weather in the blink of one white-hot eye) and Rogue (who sucks the life force out of anyone she touches), you'd expect them to make short work of Magneto's minions (they have names like Mystique, Sabretooth and Toad). But the X-Men are as easily felled by their own frailties as they are protected by their strengths.
Singer has brought great verve and imagination to visualizing the X-Men's world, from Xavier's tony private school for mutants to Magneto's matte-black island redoubt. He also keeps the action and effects to a refreshing minimum, doling them out as the story warrants without resorting to the mind-numbing repetition of so many recent action adventures.
An especially arresting set piece involves a psychic stand-off between Xavier and Magneto, during which a group of policemen are held at bay by their own guns hovering "Matrix"-like in front of them.
The casting works too, for the most part. It goes without saying that McKellan and Stewart class up the production, and Famke Janssen, Hugh Jackman and Halle Berry are fantastic as Dr. Jean Grey, the Wolverine and Storm, respectively. Anna Paquin, whose facial expressions are pretty much limited to about-to-cry and choking-on-an-Altoid, is well-suited to Rogue, who becomes the unwitting center of Magneto's plan. The pro wrestler Tyler Mane, looking like a cross between Ted Nugent and the Cowardly Lion, roars convincingly as Sabretooth. (Incidentally, it's nice to root for a coed cast for a change after the Boys of Summer in "The Perfect Storm," "Shaft," "Gladiator" and "The Patriot.")
"X-Men" fans will go to this movie whether it's good or not, and luckily it's good. But non-cultists who want to acquaint themselves with this vivid and appealing franchise will find "X-Men" a fun and useful introduction to its appealing characters and storylines.
Considering that Singer leaves us with the tantalizing prospect of a sequel, getting in on the ground floor is probably a good idea.
Starring Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin
Directed by Bryan Singer
Released by 20th Century Fox
Running time 104 minutes
Rated PG-13 (sci-fi action violence)
Sun score: * * *