Dir: Brett Ratner. US. 2006. 105mins.

Brett Ratner perfunctorily signs off on one of current cinema'smost credible comic-book series with X-Men:The Last Stand, a pulpy action ride that will satisfy teenage audiences butfails to stand up to its immediate predecessor in terms of dramatic cohesion.

Compensationcomes in the form of fiery pyrotechnics and beefy CG effects, used to mountseveral explosive set-piece battles that climax with the displacement of theGolden Gate Bridge across San Francisco Bay.

Wereit to be judged as a standalone work, the third X-Men outing would pass muster as a passable comic-book romp: theclunky dialogue gradually improves, the potential for too much teen romance tooverwhelm events is checked and the pace is brisk enough to paper over thecracks.

Butthis is the climax to a trilogy and cannot but pale in comparison to previousinstalments. Even the somewhat curtailed first film gave more socio-politicaldepth to such themes as mutants coming out and revealing their powers or thenotion of what it is to be different in a 'normal' world. Here Ratner uses the themes suggested by the film's new angle -a cure for mutants - as a plot motor for battles but little else, ignoringissues like eugenics or the emotional impact that their loss of powers has onseveral mutants.

Inthe US, where X-Men (2000) and X2: X-Men United (2003) each securedjust over half ($157m and $215m respectively) of their theatrical returns,box-office should be strong for its day-and-date release on May 26.

Certainlydistributor Fox should not worry that soft domestic returns for Mission: Impossible III, this summer'sfirst turbo-charged blockbuster, reflect cinemagoingdisenchantment with the action genre. While X-Men is less well known among the wider public, the comicsthemselves consistently outsell those featuring Spider-Man or Superman and the brand has always had acommitted following on which to draw.

Italso helps that this season's big men-in-tights movie - Warners'long gestating Superman Returns - ismore than a month away. Overseas, where the X-Menfilms have also shown increasing returns, expect a similarly healthy reactionafter its international launch at Cannes (out of competition). The latestepisode will also prove welcome addition on both DVD and in TV libraries, whereit can be programmed with its predecessors or as part of a wider Marvel season.

Theonly caveat, especially in the US, is how fanboys mayreact to the direction by Ratner, whose appointmenthas caused unease on web message-boards. If this instalment fails to catchfire, then Fox will look even more towards fellow Marvel ensemble Fantastic Four (whose big-screenadaptation in 2005 suffered lukewarm reviews but who enjoyed good enoughreturns for a sequel), foregoing plans for much-mooted X-Men spin-offs.

Thestory opens as scientists announce a cure that will allow the world's mutants,possessed with superhuman abilities, the opportunity to rid themselves ofpowers that are as much a curse as a blessing. While someaccept the offer others, led by renegade mutant Magneto (McKellen),wage war on humanity. Opposing him are Professor Xavier (Stewart) andhis own band of mutants the X-Men, still mourning the seeming death of teammember Jean Grey (Janssen).

ButMagneto and Xavier have to battle for control of Grey when she is resurrectedin alter ego form as Phoenix, the most powerful mutant on Earth - and one whohas the power to destroy it.

Thenew film suffers several absences. While it is populated with legions ofmutants, previous favourites, like Alan Cumming's Nightcrawlerfrom the second film, are missing without explanation - although additions likeblue-furred politician Beast (Grammer) offer somerelief. The higher profile afforded to the wise-cracking Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, as well as the return of Ian McKellen in panto villain mode, isalso welcome.

Buttoo many supporting characters invade the plotline, and few are givensufficient back-story to explore. In particular the new Jean Grey is built upas an apocalyptic nemesis but - aside from a sexual crack at Wolverine - showslittle personality; she either sleepwalks through the narrative or else blazesaway like a combustible totem pole.

X-Men: The Last Stand may feature one Lazarus-like recoverybut the real ghost is Bryan Singer, director of the first two films and, alongwith fellow fanboy film-makers Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi and Guillermo Del Toro, credited with bringingdramatic credibility and grounding to sci-fi and fantasy properties during thepast decade.

Ashort coda after the end credits hints at a last gasp hope for a furtherinstalment. Should that come to pass, Fox might think again before handing thebaton to a serviceable director with a reputation for slapstick action.

20th Century Fox
Donners' Company
Marvel Enterprises
Ingenious Film Partners

20th Century Fox

Kevin Feige
Stan Lee
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Avi Arad
Lauren Shuler Donner
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Philippe Rousselot
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Edward Verreaux

Mark Goldblatt
Mark Helfrich
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David Hykes
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Hugh Jackman
Halle Berry
Ian McKellen
Famke Janssen
Anna Paquin
Kelsey Grammer
Rebecca Romijn
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Vinnie Jones
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Patrick Stewart
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