starring practically everybody from the first movie, plus Nightcrawler
3 1/2 stars

Readers, I must apologize; I bring you a tainted review. Unfortunately, there's no way I can tell you what it would be like to watch X2 without having the movie stagger and shudder to a halt at critical moments due to the standard incompetence at City Centre Cinemas. I've only kinda seen this film, and I look forward to seeing it on opening night with some friends and proper preparation, when I dearly hope it kicks ass.

Still, X-Men was better.

X2 (that's really the title, not "X-Men 2", just "X2") is a logical extension of X-Men, assuming Two-Towers-style knowledge of the characters and the audience's ability to jump right in and not have to be told who Wolverine is. And X2 does start with a bang, or more properly a "Bamf!", a beloved sound effect signaling the smoke-n-brimstone teleportation of Nightcrawler, a classic X-Men character. He explodes into the movie, kickin' it multiple-bamf-style, tryin' to kill the president in a scene I'm sure will resonate with many viewers.

But then, after the big bamf,  X2 kinda slows down. It's supposed to be good that we don't have to go through with all the exposition, so we can just jump in and go. We see Jean Grey, Storm, they look okay, Cyclops, Rogue, yep, Bobby "Iceman" Drake, who's also Rogue's boyfriend. But if you're not introducing them, you may forget to point out that they're cool. The first time we saw Wolverine in X-Men, he kicked our ass. Here, he doesn't. (Of course, the fact that his first big fight scene was ripped off the screen and stabbed to death in front of me at City Centre might have colored my opinion. I hope so). 

Still, as the story unfolds, X2 just feels, well, sloppier than X-Men. X-Men had a lean quality, a quickness with the dialogue that made lines like "You're a dick" linger in memory longer than any particular battle. Plus, for all its weird mutants and superpowers, X-Men was at heart Wolverine's story, his battle to find a place in a world where he's always been an outsider, accepting the help of others in order to help a girl who's just as alone as he is.

X2, on the other hand, isn't quite sure whose story it is. Here, everybody's got their own plotline, but there's less sense of the overall picture --a lot like a comic book. So Rogue has her romantic challenges with Bobby, and Storm and Nightcrawler are paired up to talk about faith, and there's an echo of the Cyclops-Jean-Wolverine love triangle. 

But what we want to see in X-Men 2 is the cool, slick stuff from X-Men except cooler and slicker and bigger. Instead, X2 gives us lots of fights, but no one, single, bigger fight. We get lots of bits with different characters, but not so much central theme. We see the mutants use their powers and react to situations, but we're halfway through the film before we get a scene that really crackles with power (an Ian McKellan scene, obviously). 

A particular problem is that we can't help noticing that our bad guy --a military asshole named Stryker played by Brian Cox-- doesn't really have a hell of a lot of tricks up his sleeve considering it's going to be him vs. a dozen super-powered mutants by the end of the film. Brian Cox is great --he did a better Hannibal Lecter than Hopkins in Manhunter-- but if it's gonna be him, Lady Deathstrike and a bunch of stabbable soldiers up against the X-Men, Mystique, Pyro *and* Magneto, it's hard to feel like the good guys need to do much more than show up.

Not that everybody doesn't get to do some cool shit and throw their powers around; there's always plenty going on. Ian McKellan of course rules pretty much whenever he's on the screen. And comics fans will smile and be happy throughout; I spotted a "Franklin Richards" file on a screen full of folders on Stryker's computer, only one of countless little in-jokes and references.

But still, somehow the effect is like putting all the mutants together in a coffee can and rattling them around rather than making a movie. X2 follows the Empire-Strikes Back route in that the characters we'd liked seeing together in the first film are split up and sent on their own mini-adventures in the second. But none of these little adventures quite add up to one big adventure. And it doesn't help that the apocalypse they're trying to prevent is visually lame and (annoyingly) totally neutralizes Xavier as a character.

X2 feels like the second in a trilogy; the best stuff in it is setup for the next film, if they make it. In the context of X-Men: Phoenix, X2 will probably click together a lot better.  But as a big, ass-kicking, blockbuster follow-up to X-Menů well, I just hope you have a better time than I did.