X-Men 1.5

Starring: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen and Hugh Jackman
20th Century Fox
RRP £19.99
Certificate: 15
Available now

Genetic mutation has spawned a new breed of humans with extraordinary powers, but fear has bred prejudice against such mutants. As a result, some attempt to conceal their true natures, while others view themselves as the new master race. But under the tutelage of Professor Charles Xavier, some mutants have learned to use their abilities for the good of mankind...

After the increasing silliness of the Batman franchise and the pointless liberties that were taken with the premise of the cinematic Judge Dredd, comics fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when the X-Men movie came out. This was before the excellent Spider-Man, remember. Some changes had been made, of course, such as the loss of Wolverine's mask, but every production decision seems to have had a good reason behind it. The Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer managed to combine the essential action and spectacle with a coherent story, and made comics-based movies cool again for the first time since Batman Returns.

The film opens with the poignant origins of two of its principal characters, separated by a generation in time. In the first instance, a young mutant exhibits his magnetic powers as the result of Nazi oppression; in the second, a teenager discovers to her horror that she may never again be able to experience physical contact with another human being for fear of draining their life force. These scenes establish the mutants as potentially deadly, but also as the innocent and sympathetic victims of fate. Ironically, the seemingly more dangerous mutant, Rogue (Anna Paquin), ultimately teams up with the good guys, while the young boy grows up to become the villainous Magneto (Ian McKellen). Both sides of the non-mutant/mutant prejudice - Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) with his dislike of the unlike, and Magneto with his disdain for the comparative weaklings who seek to denigrate his kind - are all too believable.

As the respective leaders of the bad guys and the good, McKellen and Patrick Stewart (as Professor Xavier) balance each other perfectly in terms of charm, eloquence of argument and strength of performance. One is very much the darker half of the other. Inevitably, the ghost of Captain Picard refuses to die, so when Stewart dons the Professor's brain-boosting headgear, you almost expect him to declare, "I am Locutus of Borg. Resistance is futile!" However, there is never any sense that he or McKellen is treating this action-packed movie as any less deserving of their professionalism than an RSC stage production.

Hugh Jackman also demonstrates a great screen presence in the pivotal role of Wolverine. Jackman's screen test, which is included on disc 2, leaves us in no doubt as to how right he is for this role. Only poor Halle Berry, playing Storm, comes across as a bit wooden, but then she is lumbered with some rather naff dialogue. If you thought she had some duff lines in Die Another Day, they're nothing compared to: "Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else!"

In terms of those all-important visual thrills, we are treated to spectacularly choreographed fight scenes a-plenty, as well as some cool computerised effects, which help to bring Magneto's amazing abilities to life and transform Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) into all manner of characters. But the reason X-Men works so well is that beyond the visual elements this is a movie with a soul.

Special mention must go to the "costume" that is (almost) worn by Romijn-Stamos. Careful editing and minimal screen time (possibly in order to meet the requirements of the feature's original 12 certificate) ensure that this risqué conception really does create mystique as far as heterosexual male viewers are concerned. All will surely ask themselves at some point during the movie, "Is she naked or what?" In answer to that question, the DVD's extra features reveal just how much the actress suffered for her art during cold night-time shoots. The certificate of this two-disc set has been upped to a 15, possibly because of the increased - ahem - exposure given to Ms Romijn-Stamos, but also because of some coarse language that is uttered during the many behind-the-scenes sequences.

Disc 1 allows you to play the movie in a number of different modes: with commentary; with extended scenes; with extended scenes and behind-the-scenes clips; and with extended scenes and commentary. To be honest, the backstage sequences do interrupt the flow of the movie, and they have a habit of jumping in just as the dramatic tension is being raised. A couple of them, such as the making of the Senator Kelly "conversion" sequence, seem to have been inserted at the wrong place. However, the deleted and extended scenes are well worth incorporating when you view the film; one in particular adds dramatic irony to Kelly's "conversion".

Disc 2 contains more than three hours of documentary features, plus image galleries and multi-angle views of several scenes. It's possible that this DVD contains too much information. For example, do we really want to see production personnel falling asleep in meetings or Bryan Singer apparently licking ice cream directly from a carton? However, X-Men 1.5 is well worth the asking price, even if you are not entirely fascinated by all of its special features.

Leaving certain questions about Wolverine's origins unanswered, the first X-Men movie offers plenty of scope for the imminent sequel to develop, rather than merely rehash, the ideas of its predecessor. This is a good thing, because X-Men 2 has a lot to live up to following this, one of the best comics-based movies ever.

Richard McGinlay

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