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X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014) review #1

May 25, 2014

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written by: Simon Kinberg (screenplay/story); Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (story)

produced by: Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg & Hutch Parker

directed by: Bryan Singer

rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, some suggestive material, nudity and language)

runtime: 131 min.

U.S. release date: May 23, 2014

 

Well, it took some retconning, some time-traveling as well as some rebooting and time-portal jumping (whew!), but “X-Men: Days of Future Past” does indeed return the X-Men movies to the grit, grandeur and vigor of 2000’s “X-Men” and 2003’s “X2: X-Men United”. That’s due to the clear and deliberate choice to emphasize what worked best in the past fourteen years of X-movies, which means a restorative focus on the drama (and humor) that comes with solid characterization (plot and continuity flaws and all), along with the suspense that comes when an entire race faces pending extinction. Considering that, let’s quickly bone-up on some X-history in order to but “Days of Future Past” into context.

The first step to this return to form came with the Matthew Vaughn helmed “X-Men: First Class” in 2011, co-produced by Jane Goldman (who had worked on “Kick-Ass”, among other projects with Vaughn) and Bryan Singer (the director behind the first two movies). “First Class” had to go back in time to inject some much-needed new blood into the X-Men franchise after Bret Ratner’s subpar sequel “X-Men: The Last Stand” crippled the series back in 2006. To jog your memory that’s where just about every mutant winds up dead or loses their powers – even the peace-minded Professor Xavier was obliterated (an end credit scene though, shows how he transported his mind in another body). Ultimately, the biggest failure of “The Last Stand” was taking elements from two great stories from the comics – one by Joss Whedon and one by Chris Claremont and John Byrne) – and mashing them into a botched screenplay by Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg.

Five years later, “First Class” helped by distancing itself (and viewers) from what we’d been previously given. The movie had the benefit of time by setting the film in the 60s and also provided us with younger versions of familiar characters – better yet, actors like James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, as Charles Xavier and Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto respectively, to play them. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but vastly improved upon the debacle that was “The Last Stand”.

“First Class” helped encourage fans of the franchise, but if you find yourself counting the two solo Wolverine movies, the abysmal “Origins” (2009) and last summer’s mostly good “The Wolverine”, you’ll be bummed all over again. Neither of those movies helped mutant and moviegoer relations all that much. It’s best to view them as fans in the comic book community view team and solo books, separating the two and taking them on their own merits.

 

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Yet, the X-movies have always been Wolverine-centric (a valid complaint for many, but when the most charismatic lead actor out of the cast is Jackman, it’s a failed argument), it’s kind of hard to consider his solo movies as separate entities, especially when “Origins” incorporated younger versions of characters we’d seen before (some would say too many characters for a solo movie). At best, “The Wolverine” was trying to do its own thing, which is what a solo book should do.

Which brings us to the now. In an effort to fully resuscitate the uncanny mutant presence on the big-screen, Bryan Singer is back to helm “X-Men: Days of Future Past”. After the lackluster results of “Superman Returns” and last year’s “Jack the Giant Slayer”, Singer needs this to succeed just as much as the mutants do, especially with the unfortunate media coverage he’s been getting in real life lately. Singer succeeds by having old and new characters in the future that run concurrent with a needed trip to the 70s with old, younger/familiar and new characters. Confused? Surprisingly, you won’t be when you watch “Days of Future Past”.

Once again, elements of a classic X-Men comic by Claremont and Byrne is adapted, but thankfully, that’s the only story a returning Kinberg (working from a story by himself, Vaughn and Goldman) adapts. Considering how dense and engaging that story is, it’s a smart decision seeing the focus on just one story adaptation this time around.

The story begins in a “Terminator”-esque near-future, where New York City has been reduced to a debilitated shell with piles of skulls and corpses strewn across the streets. Mankind has found a way to deal with their mutant problem by rounding up mutants and mutant sympathizers and either experimenting on them, imprisoning them and/or just killing them off. They do this by having developed an armada of adaptable robots, named Sentinels, that are programmed to track down mutants and anyone else on the agenda.

 

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With their numbers dwindling, the remnants of the X-Men have regrouped in remote locations in Russia and China. Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who’s phasing ability has mutated to include the capability of transforming one’s mind into the body of their past self, leads a group of refugees that includes Bobby/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), iron-strong Peter Rasputin/Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) as well as the energy-absorbing Bishop (Omar Sy), solar-powered Sunspot (Adan Canto), time-portal slinging Blink (Fan Bingbing) and Warpath (Booboo Stewart) a knife-wielding fighter with enhanced senses used to detect approaching Sentinels. But it doesn’t look like they have any real answers about how to stay alive or turn the tables on their hunters.

That’s when the Old School mutants join them. Storm (Halle Berry) and Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) bring Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Eric (Ian McKellan) to meet up with Kitty and company. The elder mutants, once formidable opponents are once again united and have a plan: have Kitty send Logan’s mind back in time to stop Raven/Mystique (a steely Jennifer Lawrence, returning from “First Class”) from assassinating Bollivar Trask (a welcome Peter Dinklage), the arrogant military scientist of Trask Industries who created the Sentinels. Without these robots, mutant and human lives could be spared and hope could possibly be restored. Here’s the catch: there’s no Plan B. This is it. It has to work.

Charles Xavier stresses this to a salt-and-pepper haired Logan (no pressure!) and adds that he must track down a 1973 Xavier (tremendously played again by McAvoy) and reunite him with Eric (Fassbender, elevating every scene) to track down Raven. A reluctant Logan reminds Xavier that he’s strong points aren’t persuasion (at least not in a gentle manner), but agrees to the mission knowing that with his healing powers, he’s the only one who can withstand the grueling decade-jumping time travel. Of course, audiences know that he’s chosen because he’s Hugh Jackman and he’s formidably held together this franchise.

 

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As much as viewers may have grown tired of Wolverine-heavy movies, this “Life on Mars” approach is at least something different to take in. We’re as comfortable seeing Jackman in this role as he is slipping back into it like an old pair of jeans. Singer and company also know that seeing Logan with a new role, as a “the recruiter”, a “unifier”, is a welcome new take for the over-exposed character, that comes full circle from his first big-screen debut. He was the alpha male with the damaged psyche who came to Xavier for help and now the roles have reversed; Logan must help a psychologically damaged Xavier get his hope-fueled chi back. Finding a reclusive Xavier in his empty mansion being overlooked by a protective Hank McCoy/Beast (a wonderful Nicholas Hoult) makes the job all the more challenging for Logan.

Right away, the stakes are high in “Days of Future Past”. Not only does the future look grim, but we soon realize that Logan’s mission is no cake walk. He recites the proverbial “I’m from the future” line to whomever he meets, be it the younger versions of his friends or any enemies. This interaction earns some valid laughs, but there’s always the eminent hand at task looming that keeps the suspense on track.

Adding some levity is new character, Piotr Maximoff aka Quicksilver (Evan Peters, “Kick-Ass”), who is recruited by Logan to break Magneto out of a secure facility underneath the Pentagon. (What Eric is imprisoned for gets some warranted chuckles). Logan mentions he knows the silver-haired character from the future and is certain his super-speed powers are exactly what they’ll need to spring Eric. The scenes with laid-back Quicksilver provide the movie’s most refreshing moments. From the comedy on display when Logan, Charles and Hank make an unannounced visit to Quicksilver’s suburban home (where he resides with his mother and younger sister), to the actual breakout, which provides the most memorable action sequence of the movie. Sure, there’s fantastic special effects on display, but it also develops the character of Quicksilver in the process – showing us how his mind works while in speed mode in order to think through a potentially dangerous situation.

 

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I don’t know anyone who saw promotional photos of Peters in costume and had much faith in how the character would be portrayed. Here is the one rare occasion though where everyone will everyone will be pleasantly surprised. They’ll be talking about Quicksilver after seeing “Days of Future Past”. This means that next year when Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) plays the same character in Marvel Studios “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, well, he’s got his work cut out for him. Peters may just lucky enough to arrive first, but judging from Taylor-Johnson’s recent work, I think we already know who the better Quicksilver will be. Those who know the history of Quicksilver should take special note in how it’s subtly handled here.

While Logan is getting his motley crew together, Singer and company introduce us to the focused Trask and get us up to date with what a driven Mystique has been up to. Trask’s Sentinels project has been dejected by Congress which makes him all the more determined to go forward with it. During this time we also meet a young “military man”, William Stryker (Josh Helman), with no love for mutants. We meet him in Saigon as the Vietnam War is ending, as he witnesses the shapeshifting Mystique liberate a handful of mutants, among them were Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) and Toad (Evan Jonigkeit), who had served as enlisted soldiers, from his intended grasp.

Stryker eventually hooks up with Trask, but the most interesting use of the character (who’s been played by Brian Cox and Danny Huston) is seeing the time-displaced Logan run into him in Paris. It’s the first time we really see time travel take a toll on Logan, who’s stay in 1973 is tentative (at best), determined by how soon he can stop Mystique and how long the future ragtag X-Men can protect Logan’s body from the time travel experience and of encroaching Sentinels.

 

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The back and forth between the two time periods, especially during their respective climax scenes is a deftly handled. It also counters any complaints critics of the superhero genre may have about ending with back-to-back explosive set pieces. Yes, there’s heavy-CGI on both sides of the timeline, but it’s not like we are yet again seeing another city get decimated. This is action that serves the story, not just collateral damage.

“Days of Future Past” is loaded with fine committed actors who are convincing in how they handle much of the unbelievable plot points. Certain things go unexplained (what happened to Xavier between “The Last Stand” and now?) and other plot points, well, we just accept them because the actors do. Also, because it’s still fun to see these characters interacting on the big-screen together.

For his return, Singer reunites with his longtime cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel and composer John Ottman, both of whom return a sophisticated look and sweeping tone to the series. Just make sure to opt out of the 3D, which only serves to shroud the screen in a dim light.

Seeing how Singer wraps this sequel up was the most elated geeky moments I had. It doesn’t involve action. Just a return to form for characters we’ve come to appreciate. As a long-time X-Men fan, my favorite moments was never seeing them in action, but moreso seeing them just be themselves – whether it’s going out on the town or hanging out in the mansion. Singer gives us a taste of that here. It’s an Old School feeling with a dash of “Wolverine and the X-Men” – like an apology for the past and a reboot for the future – one which I’ll gladly accept.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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