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Review: 'X2' a superior sequel

More, bigger, better

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

Hugh Jackman returns as Wolverine in "X2: X-Men United."

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(CNN) -- It's a rare occurrence indeed for a sequel to be anywhere near as good as the original film. But that's the case with "X2: X-Men United." In fact, the new film may be better than the original.

This time out there's more action, more character development, more special effects and a much bigger budget. The last item is no surprise: after all, the original made $157 million at the box office, and that's just domestically.

More important, however, the "X-Men" creative team -- led by director Bryan Singer (also known for 1995's "The Usual Suspects") -- is back, both in front of and behind the camera. There are some highly entertaining additions to the cast as well.

The X-Men are part of a group of mutant human beings, and as the first movie revealed, they're not always tolerated by the mainstream population. "X2" begins with a breathtaking action sequence in which the president of the United States is attacked in the Oval Office by a mutant, despite the fact that he's surrounded by Secret Service agents. This blatant act is just the motive needed by Gen. William Stryker (Brian Cox), a mutant-hating military man and scientist.

Stryker has a very complicated background involving the world's most powerful telepath, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his Xavier School for the Gifted, where mutant children find acceptance and learn how to use their unusual powers.

Picking right up

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is Mystique in "X2."

Other key players are exactly where there were when the original "X-Men" movie left off: Magneto (Ian McKellen) is still in his plastic prison; Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) is still blue and looking good while looking for ways to free her leader; Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has just returned from a failed mission to uncover his mysterious past; and Dr. Jean Grey (Framke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Storm (Halle Berry) are all going about their "normal" routines at the school.

After the incident at the White House, Stryker attempts to use the president's fear to reinstate legislation for the Mutant Registration Act. He then convinces the government that Xavier's academy is really a mutant training center aimed at taking over the country -- and the world.

The general gets the OK to check out the situation, but instead secretly launches a full-scale military offensive on the school, and the stage is set for a full-fledged war between humans and mutants.

As the title suggests, all the mutants on earth -- including Xavier and his students and Magneto and his cohorts -- have to leave their deep differences behind and unite against Stryker and his evil plan. The best new character is Nightcrawler, played by Alan Cumming.

Raised in a traveling circus, Nightcrawler can teleport from one place to another and looks like a blue-skinned demon, with pointy ears, yellow eyes, hooves and a prehensile tail. He speaks with a German accent and is very gentle and extremely religious -- when he's not being controlled by a secret third party. Like Romijn-Stamos, Cumming was subjected to hours of intense make-up in order to transform into his character.

Other cast additions include Deathstrike, played by Kelly Hu, and a new student at the Academy named Pyro, played by Aaron Stanford. If his name doesn't tell you his mutant power, you're just not paying attention.

Lots of action -- and great hair

Famke Janssen is Jean Grey and Halle Berry is Storm in "X2." Both characters have gotten spiffy new hairdos.

As the mutants battle for survival intensifies, the PG-13 rated carnage rages. That translates into lots of fight scenes, but very little stage blood. The result is a fast-paced slick flick that races toward a spectacular climax.

All the main themes are still firmly in place. "X2" continues the original's morality tale about prejudice and the fear of the unknown. Acceptance is still at the heart of the story. And yes, Virginia, the ending is a huge setup for "X3." Another sequel is more or less a certainty.

A word about "X2's" hair: Few movies have ever put so much focus on tonsorial splendor. Storm, Rogue and Jean all have great new 'dos, though Xavier is still bald and Wolverine's hair still looks like two miles of bad road. Fortunately, Stewart and Jackman have other assets.

And be sure to look for the letter X. Singer and production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas placed numerous subliminal X images throughout the film. The first one comes at the very beginning of the movie, with the logo of the studio -- 20th Century Fox.

"X2: X-Men United" opens nationwide on Friday, May 2, and is rated PG-13.

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