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film: X-Men Return 

New mutants add to the dark fun of sharp-looking "X2."

And as if the original batch of X-folks weren't enough, "X2" adds a handful of nifty new ones to the roster of misunderstood mutants: There's the inky-blue skinned Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming), who makes a stunning entrance, swooping and whooshing around a room like a bat out of hell. A teleporter who vaporizes into swirls of black smoke and then reappears somewhere else, Nightcrawler's haunting demeanor and phlegmy German accent keep us guessing. In the X-universe where labels prove to be dangerous things, we wonder if Nightcrawler is friend or foe.

More easily pegged is the hate-filled Stryker, played to the hilt by Brian Cox, who by the way shares a Royal Shakespeare Company acting pedigree with Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen. Stewart and McKellen reprise the roles of mutant leaders Professor Charles Xavier, elegant in his silk waistcoats and wheelchair, and the imprisoned Magneto, increasingly pale, but oh-so intense. Watching these gentlemen mix it up, biting off their words with chilly precision, is quite a treat. Stryker, in fulfillment of the disaster foreshadowed in the closing scenes of "X-Men," has essentially declared war on the mutants, setting into motion a chain of events that forges some unlikely alliances.

Also new this time around is Stryker's associate, Yuriko Oyama (Kelly Hu), aka Deathstrike, who has a specific power that makes her a worthy match for Wolverine. Pyro ("Tadpole's" Aaron Stanford), is a steaming cauldron of teen rebellion who can control fire as well as a handful of students from Professor Xavier's school, who come equipped with such handy skills as walking through walls and channel-surfing at the blink of an eye, literally.

Virtually everyone from the original film returns, as does the wonderful balance of character-based drama, nifty special effects and wry humor. There's also plenty of romance — from the teen mutants as well as the adults. While Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose powers make it dangerous for her to touch another, delicately approaches classmate Bobby Drake, aka Iceman (Shawn Ash-more), a dangerous love triangle seems to be looming among Wolverine, Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) and Cyclops (James Marsden).

Though "X2" takes time to explore these relationships, it's still an action story, with some sequences breathlessly choreographed. A nighttime raid on the school, with Wolverine to the rescue may cause a few white knuckles, as will some of the movie's topnotch battles between the good and the bad mutants. One standout scene features Wolverine and Deathstrike hissing like cats as they fight to the finish.

But Singer's genuine masterstroke is this: He makes us care about these characters. There's also his welcome, if none-too-subtle, parallel between the fictional mutants and real-life people who don't "fit in." One scene in "X2," in which a young X-man finally decides to tell his parents about his superpowers, has the ache of an out-of-the-closet scene. "Have you tried not being a mutant?" asks his mom, while a bitterly angry family member slips away to enact a revenge plot of his own.

Darker and more involving than its quite-entertaining original, "X2" not only delivers great summer movie fun, but also leaves that big X-door wide open for a sequel next year. And that's X-tremely good news for this reviewer. **** S

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