Carmike Stadium 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Tinseltown
First, a note to the fanboys: relax. Brett Ratner hasn't screwed up your beloved franchise.
Sure, the director of Rush Hour and Red Dragon is no Bryan Singer, the man who made the first two X-Men movies into intelligent, emotionally resonant films that even non-comics fans could love. Yes, Ratner's music-video attention span and inability to linger on a shot for more than a few seconds blunts the impact of some of X-Men: The Last Stand's big emotional moments. Nonetheless, he liked Singer's films as much as you did, and he hasn't tried to fix what ain't broke.
The Last Stand may even be the most moving of the three films, since the allegory behind the mutant heroes' saga is more overt than ever. This time, the government develops a vaccine, a "cure" for mutants. (The source of the serum is the bloodstream of a mutant boy who's locked up in Alcatraz, now home to the government lab.) Each mutant must decide whether to take the voluntary vaccine. But is difference a disease? Would you give up what makes you different if that's also what makes you special and powerful?
X-Men patriarch Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) takes a cautious wait-and-see attitude, but Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his band of renegade mutants have no faith in ordinary humans' willingness to do the right thing, and they'll go to any length to ensure their own survival.
Their skepticism proves justified; as Magneto predicts, the government is quick to turn the voluntary cure into an anti-mutant weapon. Magneto's disdain for all non-mutants has a ruthless logic, but he doesn't realize until too late how that animus hardens into a prejudice just like the one he abhors.
There's a lot here for fans of the comic to appreciate, including the introduction of the "Dark Phoenix" plot line, in which telepath Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), presumed dead at the end of X2, returns as a being so powerful she can't control herself. The film gives X-Men leader Storm (Halle Berry) more to do, and it finally introduces to the screen such fan favorites as the feral but eloquent Beast (Kelsey Grammer), the winged Angel (Ben Foster), and sensitive Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who can walk through walls. All this may be lost on newbies; if you haven't seen the first two films, you'll have a hard time following this one.
There are some grandly spectacular action sequences, though they don't make much sense. To transport his mutant army from San Francisco to Alcatraz Island, Magneto uproots the Golden Gate Bridge. (Couldn't he just commandeer a boat?) Jean's resurrection is similarly wondrous but shrouded in mysterious, never-explained loose ends. (How long has she been under?)
What gives the X-Men movies their emotional weight is the fact that people we love suffer and die. The Last Stand toys with our feelings by undermining that sense of finality, not just with Jean's revival but also with a post-closing-credits teaser suggesting that another major character may yet return from the dead. Sometimes even the laws of mortality bend to the laws of Hollywood sequels.
That makes the movie's title a cheat, but like any fanboy, I'll look forward to another opportunity to see these characters grow.