Gather, darkness... A hero must save the world or the woman he loves. And a franchise must spark its final blaze of glory from the ashes of the past. For the X-Men, The Last Stand is now.
Dark days have befallen the world of the X-Men. Integral parts of the team are missing, newcomers are being treated with distrust and the entire crew is under attack from clandestine forces. No doubt about it: the future of our beloved mutants hangs in the balance. No, this isn’t the plotline for X-Men: The Last Stand. It’s the story behind its making. In summer 2005, 20th Century Fox appeared to have blown it. Bryan Singer, the visionary behind X-Men and X2, had flown to Warner Bros and Superman Returns. replace him, then bailed (officially because he didn’t want to uproot his young family, unofficially because of the blockbuster’s pressure-cooker atmosphere and script issues). Finally, Fox drafted in Rush Hour director Brett Ratner, which hardly quelled the disquiet of the franchise’s vociferous, net-savvy fanbase – fuelled when a leaked early version of the script was harshly reviewed on the influential Ain’t It Cool News website.
The negative buzz was frankly unfair on Ratner, a devoted comic-book fan who had, ironically, worked for a full year on an earlier incarnation of Superman Returns and was once in line to direct the very first X-Men movie. But as every blockbusting Hollywood director knows, if you’re going to have a feel-good finale to your story, your heroes need to go through hell first. For the X-Men, this was it.
Thwack! Crunch! Crash! Six months later, the front window of a house in a sleepy Vancouver suburb shatters as a muscular figure is launched through it and lands with a resounding thump on the lawn. The sculpted hair and rippling physique identify him as Wolverine, reluctant but heroic figurehead of Professor Xavier’s band of peace-seeking superbeings. The creature administering the conclusive cuffing is less familiar, but no less impressive – a heavily armed, brick shithouse of a beast going by the apt name of Juggernaut. Meanwhile, across town, a huge replica of the Golden Gate Bridge is being constructed only to be shortly destroyed again, a winged teenager is being hoisted 80 feet in the air ready to plummet from the city skyline and Famke Janssen, whose Jean Grey died at the end of X2, is squeezing into a classy new red get-up. All of which can mean only one thing: the X-Men aren’t going down without a bloody big scrap.
“I was sad to see Bryan go,” says Hugh Jackman, aka Wolverine, between takes. “But I understood how much Superman meant to him. I remember when we were filming the Statue Of Liberty scene in the first film and he’s shouting up at me, ‘Do it like the scene in Superman when he rescues Lois from the earthquake!’ And I’m shouting back, ‘Mate, I haven’t seen that film since I was 12!’ He looked at me like I was a total ignoramus.”
Jackman, Ratner and many other members of the X-Men cast have remained close to Singer, with Jackman even rumoured to make a cameo appearance, via flashback, as the young version of Clark’s dad in Superman Returns. Their loyalty only extends so far, though.
“I never really thought about pulling out of X-Men,” explains Jackman. “It all hinges on the script for me and I think this one is the best of the three – the most emotional, definitely the biggest. Plus I can’t think of another character that has the challenges for an actor that Wolverine has. I always liked Mad Max, Dirty Harry and Han Solo as a kid, and Wolverine has elements of all of them. Could Wolverine kick Superman’s ass? Definitely!”
Jackman’s decision to stick around set the trend, with almost all of the X-Men from the previous two films signing up for the third – the only notable exceptions being Alan Cumming (Nightcrawler) and Ray Park (Toad). Both may be missed but are, frankly, expendable. Not so Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier), who needed two long phone conversations with Ratner to convince him the movie was in safe hands (“There was a big question mark about the project,” he admits). Oscar-winner Halle Berry (Storm), on the other hand, came on board with a set of demands. “I wanted to fly!” she tells Total Film in her Los Angeles home. “I’ve worn this cape for two movies and I wanted to put it to use. On a bigger level, I also wanted Storm to have a voice and a definite point of view this time so people can better understand who she is.”
Her wishes were granted. Not only is Storm’s dialogue plentiful and potent this time round, but she’s an integral part of several of the action sequences; action sequences that will, if you believe the cast, be the biggest, baddest and bestest of all the X-Men films to date. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but if one man should know, it’s Jackman. “I saw a take of this one stunt and I couldn’t believe it was real,” he says. “It’s this thing where Halle flies about 100 feet, spinning like you can’t believe. I figured they must have sped it up or something, but no, they actually did it for real.”
“I love the physical challenge of these movies,” says Berry. “That’s not to say there aren’t depths of emotion, but this genre is about using your body in different ways. That said, it was hard for me because I have a weak stomach and tend to projectile vomit if I’m not careful. The stunt guys had to have a big red bucket to sit by me at all times!”
So are we to believe that Storm is going to, erm, steal Wolverine’s thunder? No chance, says our hirsute hero, bristling at the mere thought of being out-muscled. He reminds Total Film of Wolverine’s window-smashing fight with Juggernaut (played by Vinnie Jones) and highlights a sequence in which his clawed crusader single-handedly takes on a whole army of Magneto’s cronies in a forest-set dust-up. Then he pulls out his ace... “There’s a scene where I get hurled back by Magneto [Ian McKellen],” he says, chest puffing out. “I was thrown on this rig – about 600 feet. At 80 mph. Through tree branches. It was the most unbelievable ride of my life.”
REQUIEM FOR A TEAM
Details of The Last Stand’s plot have been protected by the filmmakers with a fervour usually employed by governments shielding military secrets. Actors were required to sign contracts that could see them sued if they gave certain twists away, although these twists – the possible deaths of two key characters – are easy enough to fathom if you spend enough time on the internet. And it’s no secret that The Last Stand deals with the discovery of a cure for mutancy and the myriad questions such a breakthrough raises for all the characters. Plus, Famke Janssen’s Jean Grey returns from her watery grave as Dark Phoenix – a creature more powerful than even Professor Xavier. This plot strand was suggested at the end of X2 and promises much, given that Chris Claremont’s Dark Phoenix Saga is one of the greatest comic-book stories of all time.
“It’s the most emotional through-line of the movie,” says Ratner. “Imagine if you had a family member who lost control and was a danger to herself and everyone around her; you’d have serious choices to make about somebody you love.” Jackman adds, “Wolverine and Jean’s relationship this time goes further than it’s ever gone before.”
Janssen’s just glad to be back. “I’m so proud of this film,” she beams. “I like my character. I like the fact that we stay true to who these people were and what Bryan had initiated in the first two films. And I like my red costume.” Anything else? “I also like the new characters we’ve acquired...”
Ah, the new characters – always a point of contention among fans. Here goes... Juggernaut is everything you’d expect a Vinnie Jones character to be – big, malevolent, a man of few words. “He’s not actually on anybody’s side,” says the artist formerly known for squeezing Gazza’s nadgers. “But when there’s a battle going on, he wants to be in it. He has some great one-liners, too. There’s one bit where I get busted out of a train and say something like, ‘Thanks, I’ve been dying for a wee!’” Okaaay...
Next up is the subject of many of the film’s pre-publicity photographs – winged teenager Angel, a primary player in the very first X-Men comic-books. Played by rising star Ben Foster, Angel (real name Warren Worthington III) is central to the ‘mutant cure’ plot, his father looking to create a serum in response to Warren’s desire to cut off his wings and be normal. Foster, whose face you may recognise from Six Feet Under, found filming to be an extraordinary experience.
“They strapped me into a jockstrap, dragged me up 80 feet and then dropped me! The whole experience was like Willy Wonka on acid, man! It was all so big, so over the top… This film is massive!” And seemingly a little overwhelming. “There’s Sir Ian McKellen walking around in his gloves and helmet, Hugh in a tank top with daggers sticking out of his hands and I’m shirtless with wings and feathers. It’s a weird job, man!”
Also coming to the fore this time round are steel man-mountain Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), the power-sucking Leech (Birth’s Cameron Bright) and Storm-rival Callisto (Dania Ramirez), plus a more prominent role for the agile Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat (with X2’s blink-andyou’ll- miss-her performer Katie Stuart replaced by Ellen Page, star of controversial upcoming paedophilia thriller Hard Candy). The most exciting new role, though, is that of Beast. Despite featuring in the first X-Men books, Beast has so far been limited to a background shot in X2, when his alter-ego, Dr Hank McCoy, is interviewed on TV. McCoy is the first mutant to be fully involved in politics, but his gigantic, hairy blue body suggests he is more than capable of violence. It’s this mix of bulky frame and learned mind, married to a voice that conveys intelligence and class, that makes Kelsey Grammer – yes, that’s Frasier’s Dr Frasier Crane – inspired casting…
“When I first got fitted up I thought, ‘Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into!’” laughs Grammer. He’s currently huddled in the cramped make-up truck, ready to again be buried under a mound of prosthetics. “It takes two-and-a-half or three hours to apply,” he explains. “The cast were speechless when they first saw it, but I look like I did when I was 25, actually. I had that much hair then...” We can only presume it wasn’t blue.
Grammer’s an undoubted hit with his co-stars. Jackman and Foster describe him as “hysterical”, Stewart says the costume is “the most brilliant piece of prosthetic make-up I’ve ever seen” and Berry loved to go “deep” with him. “I had some really thoughtful and insightful conversations with Kelsey,” she says. “I had to giggle, though, when I saw him all blue and furry off-camera, putting his reading glasses on to read a book.”
SINGIN’ IN THE PAIN
Later in the day, Total Film is up close and personal as Hugh Jackman’s stunt double – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Aussie actor and is, coincidentally, his brother-in-law – gets another mullering from Jones. The ‘real’ Wolverine is mooching about and singing to himself, a full-throated, somewhat camp, rendition of a show-tune. Even knowing that Jackman won a Tony award for his portrayal of Australian singer Peter Allen in Broadway musical The Boy From Oz, it’s still disconcerting to see him gaily crooning in full superhero garb. But hey, we shouldn’t be surprised: the X-Men set is rife with surreal behaviour, from people trying to work out how to use the loo while wearing 18ft wings to full-scale Strictly Come Dancing-style moments in full costume.
“I danced with Vinnie as Juggernaut,” smiles Janssen, relieved to be asked about anything other than her plotline. “I have a picture of it somewhere. He’s a good mover! So was Sir Ian McKellen, actually.”
It all seems a far cry from the ‘troubled production’ the web geeks were so keen to debate. And – balls to the web rumours – Ratner has to take much of the credit for it. His passion is infectious. “Brett’s really outgoing and very gregarious. He’s absolutely fearless,” enthuses Jackman. “One day I was about to do a big scene and I got this tap on my shoulder. I looked around and there’s Brett in full Wolverine costume. But it’s my costume. I’m about 6’2”, he’s about 5’ 3”, so the sleeves came halfway down over his claws. He looked utterly hysterical! He said, ‘You can sit this one out, dog,’ and then proceeded to go and do the whole scene. He’d learnt all my lines! Halle Berry was just pissing herself laughing and Brett was trying to be all serious. He actually sent out a Christmas card of himself dressed like that, too.”
Yet for all the good humour on set, the pedigree cast and the ‘more emotional’ script, no comic-book blockbuster can really fly without its set-pieces. And it sounds like The Last Stand might just raise the bar (to steal Joel Silver’s favourite phrase), its finale putting a good deal of the $150 million budget up there on the screen. Picture it: the Golden Gate Bridge destroyed by Magneto while his Brotherhood and the X-Men wage an all-out mutant war around him. “It’s the biggest set-piece I’ve ever shot in my life,” says Ratner, currently dressed in his own clothes. “So many elements had to be put together to make that scene work. I shot the real Golden Gate Bridge, miniatures, effects, CGI, the lot. It’s unbelievable. And all the set-pieces in this film also exist somewhere in the comic-books because the two writers, Simon Kinberg (Mr And Mrs Smith) and Zak Penn (Behind Enemy Lines), are the biggest X-Men geeks ever.”
It’s not just the showpiece moments that use state-of-the-art effects in The Last Stand, either. One flashback scene finds Magneto and Xavier visiting a young Jean Grey. “Patrick and I are very pleased with that scene,” says a relaxed Sir Ian McKellen. “It takes place 20 years ago and we both appear 20 years younger on screen. Being a couple of vain old-timers, we’re very happy with that! They put our faces through a process which has an effect like airbrushing. It’s cutting-edge technology that’s never been used in a film before. It’s wrinkle-lifting film magic!”
All this titillating talk about set-pieces and effects is to be expected, but this cast and crew is willing to show doubts, too. Ratner sighs as he admits, “Every day is difficult… there are a lot of people working on the set and it’s a big production,” before refixing his smile and adding, “but I’m so proud of this movie. I think it delivers.” Whether it does or not – and we’re hopeful – the question is, will The Last Stand really be the end of the X-Men? While there is plenty of potential for spin-offs (see sidebar), the key players are adamant this is the end of the main production line. “I don’t think they’re talking about another at this stage. I think it’s done,” says Berry. Jackman concurs: “This is it, the end of the trilogy. No cliffhanger here.” And he’s confident they’re going out in a blaze of glory? “Listen,” says the refreshingly frank Aussie. “There’s something about these films that means they’re always a bumpy ride. I’d be more worried if they weren’t. These are huge films with massive fan interest; it matters to the fans, so they worry. But rest assured, the level of commitment from the cast, crew, director and studio couldn’t be higher. They can grumble all they like... but the proof will be in the pudding.”