X-men 2 is a high-class film

The first shots in the Summer Blockbuster Wars are being fired with the return of the X mutants … and as far as X-Men 2 director Bryan Singer is concerned his collection of decidedly curious characters has no fear of the opposition.

The first shots in the Summer Blockbuster Wars are being fired with the return of the X mutants ... and as far as X-Men 2 director Bryan Singer is concerned his collection of decidedly curious characters has no fear of the opposition.

Take just one rival - actually, take just two, for there will be a couple of back-to-back sequels - the mega-hit The Matrix, and Singer says: "We're in a different world to The Matrix, and we're exciting in a different way, and we have different characters and a different tone. We operate in our own universe ... so we don't need to worry about rivals like The Matrix, Spider-Man, The Hulk, or anything else."

He has a point, for the first X-Men was an eye-catching hit in 2000, and this second outing for Professor X, Wolverine, Magneto, Storm, General Stryker, Pyro and the gang promises to be even more nail-chewing.

Singer certainly promises that it will be "more intense, funnier, darker ... romantic, even."

It comes packed with stars - Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Kelly Hu, Hugh Jackman, Aaron Stanford, Brian Cox, Anna Paquin, Alan Cumming (who had to endure eight hours of make-up for his Nightcrawler role), Sean Ashmore - and lots and lots of action, and then some.

OK, so you can forget the plot - it's the usual fight against the forces of evil - and wallow instead in the overwhelming look of X2.

Singer and his cast agree that they all had a better time working on this one than on the original. The first X was, well, fraught: "I had had no real experience of making sci-fi films, not on this scale. I made The Usual Suspects and Apt Pupil, which weren't exactly X-Men!

"There was a lot of pressure on the first X. There was a lot of fear on the part of many people, a lot riding on it being a success."

This time around, says Singer, the suits were more relaxed and didn't keep looking over his shoulder. This time, with the success of X1 now written into the Hollywood history books (it did, after all, bring in more than $300m) and actually helped ease the path of its rivals.

"This one was more fun to make ... well, not fun all the time for me, but that goes with the territory of being director. Everybody else, though, seemed to get a kick out of this one. What helps in an ensemble piece is that the success, or otherwise, isn't resting on one pair of shoulders. If it is resting with anybody, it's me, but from the outset I decided not to get stressed-out. And working with a cast like this also helped."

The success of X1 always meant that there was going to be an X2 - "The first film was like a trailer for this one, it set up ideas and pointed to paths we needed to explore with another film" - but there was always the knowledge that X2 had to be miles more action-packed, gripping, thrilling and visually stunning than X1 ... and knowing that the growing list of rivals were doing the same.

It's a high-class film in many other ways ... noted British Shakesperian actors Stewart and Sir McKellen, Oscar winners Berry and Paquin - and everybody working on it - almost 2,000 - knows their opening salvo is going to set the pace for the summer run.

And if X2 is the hit everybody anticipates, will we see an X3?

"I'm not against the idea," says a cautious Singer, "There are things in this one which could certainly be carried into a third, which would make it worth doing. But in between, if X3 comes off, I want to do something a little less high-profile. Making X-Men can be overwhelming."

If you were to count up all the honours and awards won by members of the X-Men 2 cast it would, says Patrick Stewart, OBE, who returns as the wheelchair-bound Professor X, "really say something for the depth of talent we have in the company ... and, let's not forget, this is a film based on comic-book characters!"

For Oscar winner Berry (who plays Storm) there was the good-natured ribbing to endure ... the young Paquin has by now almost forgotten that she, too, has an Oscar. Her award came when she was a little girl, in the film, The Piano.

Stewart is, of course, best remembered as the bald and upright Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation, which he played for several years in the l980s and l990s. It was, he reveals, a role he didn't initially feel confident about: "During the first season in l987, I was so convinced that they were going to fire me that I never unpacked my bags for six weeks!"

He did find a lifelong friend in The Next Generation ... two, actually. Brent Spiner was his best man when he married Star Trek producer Wendy Nuess ... and he found his beloved cat Bella on the Generation set.

A Stateside magazine, much to his amusement, voted him the Most Bodacious Male on TV. Stewart isn't one to take himself too seriously, though he does have his serious side ... he has a human rights scholarship named after him from Amnesty International.

His research for his role in X-Men was intense: "I sat down and read a lot of comics!"

Berry is named after ... a building!

It's the Halle Building in Cleveland, which was originally a department store and is now an office building. She is also the second Bond Girl to win an Oscar, though there is some doubt over the other winner.

Kim Basinger - Oscar winner in L.A. Confidential - was in Never Say Never Again, but it is not included in the list of 20 'official' James Bond films.

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