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X2: X-Men United

X2: X-Men United kicks you in the balls so hard that you puke on your balls and also your ass.” Let’s see the suits use that quote in the X2 ads. The blurb is the work of fancifully named critic Neill Cumpston (as in cum stain?), whose review, as posted on the Ain’t It Cool Web site, spoofs geek addiction to Xtc.

X-Men, the first film made from Stan Lee’s Marvel comic, grossed $300 million in 2000, but Cumpston felt shortchanged: “Remember how the first film had all that story (= for gays) in the first part, and you were like, ‘How ’bout some ass-kicking already?’ and then finally they got to it? Not this one. It’s like, OK, there’s the credits, and now here’s the ass-kicking, and it starts and doesn’t stop and you’re all like, ‘Pants, meet shit.’ “

Props to Cumpston for wittily epitomizing the devalued state of film criticism. Who cares if X2 has a director, a writer or a thought in its head, as long as this $120 million epic turns loose mutants to metaphorically bruise our nether regions.

That it does. Everyone is pumped up and pissed off, starting with director Bryan Singer, who reportedly kicked chairs and screamed at the crew. His mood fits the movie. Hugh Jackman is again in fierce, lupine form as Wolverine, the mutant with metal claws. Pushing the bounds of PG-13 intensity, Wolvie stabs his spikes into Deathstrike (the dazzling Kelly Hu), whose talons are twice the size of his. The buzz is right: X2 is bigger, badder and better than X1.

It’s also half an hour longer, a mixed blessing that allows for (yikes!) character development. The two mutant camps — one led by Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who wants mutants and humans to co-exist, the other led by Magneto (Ian McKellen), who preaches mutant supremacy — unite against Stryker (a terrific Brian Cox), a military psycho with a genocidal rage against mutants and their special gifts.

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It doesn’t help the X-Men’s cause when a mutant tries to kill the president in the opening scene. We hear a sound — bampf! — and there stands Nightcrawler (zesty scene-stealer Alan Cumming), a blue-skinned, yellow-eyed, fork-tailed demon who teleports past security, damn near stabs the prez and behaves unlike the gentle soul he is, a German acrobat who enjoys deep religious dish with Storm (Halle Berry, still struggling with an underwritten role). It’s clear that the good guys are being mind-controlled.

Romance also trips up the X-Men. Wolverine is losing telepathic Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) to laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden). On the junior X team, pity poor Iceman (Shawn Ashmore). His itch for Rogue (Anna Paquin, sporting gray streaks) requires safe scratching, since a mere touch from her can floor a guy. “We love what you’ve done with your hair,” says Magneto, lobbing the line at Rogue like a bitchy Cupid. Fun stuff.

Hot stuff is Rebecca Romijn-Stamos as Mystique, a naked vision in blue when she’s not shape-shifting to get it on with Wolvie as Jean, as Storm and as herself. Neat trick.

What’s un-neat is how Singer and screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris overload the film with new Xers. Pyro (Aaron Stanford) is viably flashy, but do we need the steel guy, the screamer, the girl who passes through walls and the kid with the forked tongue? By expanding the X-Men franchise, Singer dilutes the film at hand. As for the death of one major character, it’s less an organic shock than an excuse to get soppy and philosophical.

But why rip Singer for defying the rules of ass kicking. If only he defied them more. X2 is a summer firecracker. It’s also a tribute to outcasts — teens, gays, minorities, even Dixie Chicks. It’s not without thought or feeling, except when its mind gets bent by the gods of box office. Then it’s craven and empty. Success, meet compromise.

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