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Third mutant movie a notch below superior predecessors

It may be inadvisable to switch a horse in midstream, but there's no definite course of action when it comes to switching a director in mid-franchise.

The three Indiana Jones films benefited from having the steady hand of Steven Spielberg on the controls throughout the series: As one of the creators of the whip-cracking adventurer, he knew exactly what he wanted to get -- and what he wanted audiences to get -- out of the adrenaline-surging trilogy. Conversely, having three different directors helm the four Harry Potter titles has worked out for that series: While each man has brought his own vision to the series, all titles have been fairly consistent in their entertainment value.

On the other side of the equation, maintaining the same director can help run a tired series into the ground (Richard Donner with Lethal Weapon), but playing musical directors' chairs can yield equally dismal results (seven Police Academy films, six different directors, zero watchable entries).

The X-Men franchise was one of the lucky ones -- at least initially. Bryan Singer, best known for The Usual Suspects, was entrusted with turning the valuable Marvel Comics property into a motion picture, and he proved to be the right man for the job. The 2000 hit X-Men, which introduced Marvel's band of mutant outsiders to a wider audience and helped spearhead the current boom in superhero flicks, appealed to fans of the comic book but also offered comfort to anyone who could tap into its obvious symbolic gestures (most equating the fantasy world ostracism of mutants with the real world shunning of homosexuals). Singer returned for 2003's X2, and, bucking the trend, managed to make a follow-up that equaled its predecessor on nearly every level.

And now we get X-Men: The Last Stand, the third picture in the series. Unfortunately, Singer is nowhere to be found, as he opted to jump ship in order to jump-start the dormant Superman franchise (Superman Returns opens June 30). So we get Brett Ratner (the Rush Hour duo) as the new ringmaster, aided in his efforts by scripters Simon Kinberg (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) and Zak Penn (who co-wrote X2 but also had a hand in the lamentable Elektra). It's hardly a fair deal, yet it's a testament to the durability of the original comic created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that the movie survives this hostile takeover. There's plenty of boneheaded decisions plaguing X-Men: The Last Stand from the first frame to the last (hint: stick around after the end credits have run their course for a sequel-suggesting coda), yet there's also enough of merit to earn it a passing grade.

Newbies need not apply, but the faithful will catch on immediately when the movie brings up its central issue: a "cure" has been found for mutancy, leading to divergent viewpoints among those afflicted with extraordinary powers. Some, like X-Woman Storm (Halle Berry) and the villainous Magneto (Ian McKellen), don't look at mutancy as a curse and are offended that such a remedy is even being offered. Others see nothing wrong in desiring a life of normalcy; among those is Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose mere touch can kill anyone, even a boyfriend (Shawn Ashmore's Iceman) with whom she can never enjoy even the most chaste of physical intimacy. As always, X-Men guru Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) takes a philosophical, wait-and-see approach. And Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Cyclops (James Marsden)? They don't seem too preoccupied with the issue, since they're both still reflecting on the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who sacrificed herself at the end of X2.

Of course, anyone with a passing knowledge of the Marvel comic knows that Jean Grey isn't really dead for good; she's about to reemerge from what appeared to be a watery grave as Phoenix, an alter ego who ranks among the most powerful mutants the world has ever seen. But since absolute power corrupts absolutely, Phoenix is subjected to a Jekyll and Hyde routine that finds her alternately killing off teammates without a second thought and then anguishing over her evil actions.

The distress of fans of the book The Da Vinci Code over the liberties taken by the film version will doubtless seem like a mere whisper in a hurricane when compared to the ire of comic fans incensed by the changes imposed by Ratner and Co. Mutant history may have advanced significantly since my teen years as a diehard X-Men fan (heck, I was even a Wolverine aficionado long before he achieved superstar status), but I still fondly recall the Phoenix storyline as one of the greatest in the annals of Marvel Comics, ranking up there with the death of Spider-Man sweetheart Gwen Stacy. Here, the Phoenix plot strand is horribly mangled, so that a denouement that should hit us with the gale force of a Greek tragedy instead comes off like a tepid storyline on Days of Our Lives.

The third film finally brings into the cinematic fold the remaining two members of the original lineup from 1963 (Cyclops, Jean Grey and Iceman were the other charter X-Men), but both characterizations are fumbled. Beast (Kelsey Grammer), perhaps second only to Spider-Man as the comic world's most wisecracking superhero, has been turned into a dullard, the hirsute equivalent of the most boring college professor imaginable. And Angel (Ben Foster), with those magnificent wings growing out of his back, swoops in for two, maybe three scenes over the length of the movie; the rest of the time, I have to assume he's off somewhere molting.

Yet the most egregious action on the part of the filmmakers was the decision to kill off a key figure from the comic book, an iconic hero who deserved far better treatment than this series ever provided. An Internet petition denouncing this death has already begun making the rounds (a lotta good it does now!).

While Ratner may not be able to adequately tap into the mythology of the series, he's pretty good with an action scene, which means that the movie kicks into high gear whenever the good guys and bad guys square off. A large-scale skirmish set on Alcatraz (now serving as a mutant research facility) makes for a doozy of a climax -- it's the sequence in the film that most feels like it's been directly lifted from the printed page.

Also elevating the picture is the caliber of its cast, with two Shakespearean actors (McKellen and Stewart) again setting the tempo. As Wolverine, Jackman continues to project the right mix of intensity and charm, even if his character isn't further developed in the least (in that respect, he's like Han Solo in the Star Wars trilogy, who was allowed to mature beautifully through two segments before having the rug pulled out from under him in the third installment). Janssen and Paquin are again expected to carry the lion's share of the emotional lifting, and both are again up to the demand.

As for Halle Berry, she was never the best choice for the role of Storm (how I would have loved to see Angela Bassett tackle the part!), but at least she's completely dropped the bizarre Elmer Fudd speech patterns that distracted from her performance in the original film. Now when she summons up a magnificent rainstorm, we no longer have to wonder if wascally wabbits will come tumbling from the sky.

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