United, multi-faced characters and lots of action make 'X2' a worthy sequel.

It's rare to see a film wherein Bruce Davison, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos and Brian Cox all play the same part.

I think, besides X2: X-Men United, the only other case of this is Lars Von Trier's ill-fated remake of Sound of Music wherein all these actors, as well as Phyllis Diller and the late Tex Ritter, played the part of Rolf Gruber. While their choral version of "16 Going on 17" was quite the showstopper, its moving lyrics and haunting melody somehow lacked the high-powered thrills of the new X movie.

Like Rolf Gruber, Mystique--the character shared by Davison, Romijn-Stamos and Cox in X-2--is a blue-skinned mutant with the super-human ability to make herself look like any other human being. Personally, if I could make myself look like Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, I wouldn't spend a lot of time looking like Brian Cox, but that's just me.

It seems that Mystique, who spent the first X-Men movie working for the forces of evil, is now living full-time as Sen. Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), head of the Senate Committee on Mutant-Movie Plot Developments. It is in this role that she learns of an evil plan to exterminate not only all the mutants, but anyone who ever won a spelling bee or had a ham radio.

The evil General Stryker, a man so evil that not only is his last name "Stryker," but his first name is "General," has convinced the president of the United States of America (this is a small country just south of Canada wherein hamburgers and Sylvester Stallone movies were invented) that he should have a zillion-dollar budget and a lot of soldiers so as to round up all the mutants for the upcoming kill-fest. Of course, the president of the United States of America would never allow any minority group to be singled out for this sort of unconstitutional police action, so he firmly tells General Stryker "no."

Oh wait. Then there'd be no movie. Instead, he gives the big presidential thumbs-up to the round-up. Like that'd ever happen! Only in movie-land. Anyway, armed with a presidential permission slip, General Stryker takes his anti-Arab task force, I mean anti-mutant task force, and raids Professor Charles Xavier's school for gifted students.

If you watched the first X movie, you know that this school is, in fact, not for math-nerds and science whizzes, but rather for mutants, the super-powered children of the atom who represent the next leap on the evolutionary ladder.

Among the regular residents of the school are Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), the telepathic and psychokinetic wife of Scott Summers (James Marsden), a man who can shoot really cool special effects out of his eyes. Also at the school is the mysterious Logan (Hugh Jackman), a mutant whose superhuman healing ability allows him to smoke a lot of cigars with no risk of cancer of the esophagus.

Logan, as all X-fans know, is in love with Jean Grey, and Scott Summers doesn't like this. He doesn't like it so much that the scriptwriters pretty much write him out of the story so that Logan and Jean can spend a lot of time fighting side-by-side and looking soulfully into each other's eyes and trying to find out if mutants have special adultery powers.

Of course, soulful eye-gazing alone does not a movie make (unless that dreamy Hugh Grant is in it), so other stuff happens. Lots of stuff. There's tons of plot in X2, and a lot of it is merely set-up for the next X-movie (which I predict will be called X3: Joe Mutantaire). If you're a fan of a the X-Men comic book series, you'll be happy to know that there are hints and cameos for upcoming appearances by Hank McCoy, Remy LeBeau, and the world-destroying Dark Phoenix. If you're not a fan of the comic book, this information, as well as a lot of X2, will be met with a yawning "who cares."

Which is essentially X2's biggest problem: It's too much the franchise film. The plot is loose and overcrowded, and wears thin late in the movie, and a lot of the sub-plots are just foreshadowing for future installments of the series.

On the plus side, though, the action is great. Wolverine totally knifes up a bunch of anti-mutant soldiers, and it's viscerally pleasing to see justice meted out in the form of drippy, knifey death. While I'm often opposed to violence in real life, I'm always in favor of it when it involves killing U.S. government operatives who hunt movie mutants.

Most of the plot, in fact, belongs to Wolverine, but there are so many other characters running around (easily twice as many as in the first X movie) that even his story gets a bit lost. There's nothing boring about X2; the effects are fabulous, and the title, X-Men United, is totally cool in that it sounds like the name of a futuristic mutant soccer team. Still, this one is not quite as good as the last one, nor, I think, as the next one. It's got "transitional film," written all over it.

If you're a fan of the genre, you shouldn't let this deter you from seeing X2, but just don't go in expecting the kind of revelatory experience you had the first time you opened an X-Men comic book and realized that cartoon breasts could be a lot bigger than real breasts. This X is a good X, but not a great X.

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