X-Men at 20: A Look Back

Twenty years ago today, Bryan Singer’s X-Men arrived in theaters and it’s not hyperbole to call it one of the most influential pictures of the 21st century. The 20th Century Fox release found the comic book genre at a rather low point at the end of that said century. While Blade was a nice size hit in 1998, the years prior found at a lot to be desired with the quality of the genre. 1995 brought us Judge Dredd and 1997 saw the release of Batman and Robin, which found the Caped Crusader with Bat nipples and bad reviews.

X-Men, though it’s hard to remember now, was released at a time where the idea of superhero tales was an uncertain box office prospect. This is two years before Spider-Man broke all kinds of financial records. This is five years prior to Christopher Nolan reinvigorating the Bat franchise with his Dark Knight trilogy. And this was eight years before Robert Downey Jr. was cast as Tony Stark/Iron Man, officially kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In the summer of 2000, X-Men was by no means a guaranteed hit. It did, however, have credibility with the behind the scenes talent and cast. Bryan Singer was known for his heralded The Usual Suspects. Acclaimed actors Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen (fresh off an Oscar nod for Gods and Monsters), Anna Paquin, and Halle Berry were among the onscreen players. And it was another casting decision that provided its most enduring legacy. Russell Crowe, who headlined that summer’s Oscar winner Gladiator, originally turned down the part of Wolverine. Dougray Scott was then cast in the role, but had to drop out when his role as the villain in Mission: Impossible II (also out that summer) prevented him from filming. So it was the unknown Hugh Jackman who donned the claws. He would go on to make it his signature role as he played Logan/Wolverine in numerous sequels and spin-offs (including three stand-alone projects of wildly divergent qualities).

Let’s back up. Before the 2000 release, X-Men was in development for over a decade and a half. At one point, James Cameron was slated to produce with his then wife Kathryn Bigelow attached to direct. Later on, Robert Rodriguez turned the project down. A gander at the pic’s Wikipedia page is an entertaining read (Mariah Carey was in the mix for Storm at one juncture and Angela Bassett was first choice). X-Men was rushed to make its summer release date 20 years ago today after it was originally intended for Christmas 2000.

That rushed feeling does show on up on screen a little, but the overall end result speaks for itself. What occurred two decades ago is a major mark in the comic book movie renaissance that continues to this day. The franchise has certainly had its ups and downs. X2: X-Men United was the first sequel in 2003 and it is generally considered a high point. Three years later, Brett Ratner took over directorial reigns with The Last Stand and (while a huge hit) the quality took a dip. Matthew Vaughn would reestablish critical kudos in rebooting the series in 2011 with First Class (bringing Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence to the screen playing younger counterparts to key characters). Jackman’s first spin-off X-Men Origins: Wolverine faced deserved backlash while 2017’s Logan was lauded and landed an Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination. And a cheeky and R rated offshoot called Deadpool with Ryan Reynolds would dazzle audiences and critics alike. Last summer’s Dark Phoenix didn’t do any dazzling and was another low ebb in the series. Spin-off The New Mutants has seen release date changes that began in 2018 and it’s pretty much a running joke as to whether it will ever come out.

That long road began in 2000 and has shaped the cinematic universe since. And if you had to mark a spot for the comic book landscape today as it stands now on the screen, it started that day.

The Ethan Hunt Files – Mission: Impossible II

Over two years ago on this here blog, when it was in its infancy, I did the 007 Files where I wrote individualized blog posts on all 23 Bond flicks. That got me thinking about other series I could do the same with and in January 2013, I started The Ethan Hunt Files and wrote about the first Mission: Impossible pic from 1996.

https://toddmthatcher.com/2013/01/31/the-ethan-hunt-files-mission-impossible/

I had every intention of writing about the other three in short order. For whatever reason I did not follow up. With the fifth M:I picture Rogue Nation debuting in July, I decided it was time to resume this series of posts and we continue with Mission: Impossible II from the summer of 2000…

And what an interesting film it is, especially considering the franchise entries that preceded it and followed it. M:I II stands out as the strangest pic in the series and the one that fits in least with the rest. Two words explain the main reason for this: John Woo. The acclaimed action director took over directing duties from Brian De Palma for the second picture and didn’t have an ounce of hesitation about turning it into a bonafide Woo affair with all the slow motion shots, quick cuts, and (yes) doves that come along with it. There are certainly some similarities to the original – foremost of which is the continuation and multiplication of those fancy face masks.

Unlike Mission 1, here we have Tom Cruise’s Ethan in a romantic relationship with the gorgeous Nyah (Thandie Newton), a jewel thief who is the ex of Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), an IMF agent gone bad who Ethan is after. Ambrose has stolen a nasty virus called Chimera, as well as its antidote, in an effort to make billions on the pharmaceutical market. Nyah is enlisted to get back in the good graces of her evil ex to get information, but not before she falls in love with Ethan first. They do so during a car chase in which Ethan nearly kills her, then kisses her. It happens.

Ethan is given his mission by the new head of IMF, played by Anthony Hopkins in what is essentially a glorified cameo. Our hero is conflicted by sending Nyah into such a dangerous mission. This all might’ve worked a bit better if the chemistry between Cruise and Newton felt authentic. We simply have zero investment in their romance and by the time Nyah bravely infects herself with the virus, you don’t really mind if Chimera wins. And a lot of the film could have been improved if Scott’s performance as our head villain wasn’t so utterly unremarkable. Some may know that M:I II’s production went into overtime and it forced Dougray Scott to be dropped from playing Wolverine in that same summer’s X-Men. An unknown actor named Hugh Jackman stepped in at the last minute. This is a good thing and Scott went from the next potential Wolverine to that dull M:I II villain that kinda looks like Ewan McGregor.

Ving Rhames returns as Luther, Ethan’s fellow agent who excels in counting down the clock as Hunt performs those impossible stunts. Rade Serbedvija gives a somewhat delightfully off kilter performance as the doctor who created Chimera and Brendan Gleeson is the nefarious owner of the corporation exploiting the virus for financial gain.

The De Palma Mission was a rock solid spy thriller anchored by three first rate action centerpieces: the aquarium sequence, the Langley infiltration and the train finale. In part two, there’s the bio chem lab sequence and the motorcycle chase finale that are front and center.

Neither are as memorable as anything from the previous effort. There’s also the Cruise rock climbing business in the beginning which basically exists so its stunt loving star can look cool rock climbing.

In hindsight, M:I II is easily the weakest link of this franchise. It doesn’t much feel like a Mission feature anymore as much as a John Woo movie with Ethan Hunt in it. Acclaimed screenwriter Robert Towne (who cowrote the first) has sole credit here and a hefty portion of the dialogue, particularly Newton’s, is a bit cringe worthy. Mission: Impossible II has enough fairly cool action to satisfy your average teenage boy, but it pales next to the rest of the Missions. And there’s no excuse for Limp Bizkit reworking that classic TV series theme either.

So while its reputation has deservedly soured in recent times, that didn’t stop part two from becoming a huge global success and earning over half a billion worldwide. It also was the highest domestic grosser of summer 2000 and virtually guaranteed a third go round for Hunt and his IMF team.

Here are the facts:

Film: Mission: Impossible II

U.S. Release Date: May 24, 2000

Director: John Woo

Screenplay: Robert Towne

Budget: $125 million

Worldwide Box Office: $546.3 million

The Ethan Hunt files will return with Mission: Impossible III