Review: X-Men: First Class
PLOT: It's 1962, and CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is on the trail of The Hellfire Club, a sinister organization run by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) that's keen on igniting a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. When she discovers that Shaw, and his henchwoman, Emma Frost (January Jones) seem to possess extraordinary powers, she's led to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who's only just begun to experiment with his own telekinetic ability. Under the employ of the CIA, Xavier and his sidekick Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) begin to round-up other mutants in the hope of stopping Shaw. These mutants include Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a Holocaust survivor bent on avenging his family's murder at the hands of former Nazi Shaw.
REVIEW: Wow. That's the only word I can use to describe how I felt walking out of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. As above-average as this summer has been for blockbusters (with FAST FIVE and THOR both being very solid films), X-MEN: FIRST CLASS has just come along and declared itself the new king of the Summer of 2011.
I almost can't believe how good it's ended up being. I've been extremely critical of 20th Century Fox over the last few years, with them having followed up Bryan Singer's great X2 with the atrocious X3, and WOLVERINE. I had just about given up hope for this franchise, but damn if Fox hasn't delivered a film that's right on-par with the still-great X2.
Turns out, Matthew Vaughn (who was once attached to an early version of X3), was the ideal choice to breathe some new life into the franchise (with Singer's help, who exec-produced, and also has a co-story credit). He brings the same energy and excitement he brought to STARDUST and KICK-ASS here, with us finally getting an X-MEN film that feels like a real grade A epic, and not something that fell off the assembly line, like the last two installments.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS takes us back to the beginning of the mythology, with us seeing Xavier before he was Professor X, still had a full head of hair, and wasn't confined to a wheelchair. As played by McAvoy, Xavier's a bit of a ladies man, using his psychic abilities to pick-up co-eds while doing his Doctorate, and being more or less satisfied living a quiet, scholarly life with his protege Raven (who, of course, becomes Mystique). McAvoy, while looking a lot different than Patrick Stewart, and being a lot randier, is still quite good in the part, and by the end he brings the same grace, and compassion to the role that Stewart did.
Running parallel to Xavier's storyline is Erik's, before he became Magneto. Here, he's still one of the good guys, using his powers to avenge his mother's death in a Nazi death camp. Michael Fassbender is a revelation as Magneto, with him giving the character a cool, Sean Connery-circa FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE vibe, that meshes beautifully with the swinging sixties setting that Vaughn adopts (although it's distinctly more MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E than MAD MEN in tone). Watching him here, it's clear that Fassbender's going to be A-list before long, and this is a star-making role if ever there was one. There's a scene early on, where he hunts down two Nazis in Argentina, that's one of the most memorable action scenes I've ever seen in a superhero flick. Fassbender brings an palpable edge to the role and, like Ian McKellen, keeps Magneto right in the gray zone between good and evil, where I've always felt he belongs.
While the first half is more of a spy yarn, once Xavier and Erik come together, and start collecting mutants, FIRST CLASS settles into more of a traditional, superhero caper. While it could have been stale, Vaughn's direction, coupled with a creative storyline that folds the Cuban Missile Crisis into the plot, keeps it energetic, and fresh.
One thing's for sure, Vaughn really goes the extra mile to fold this into the franchise, with a couple of cool nods to other films in the series. The cast is pitch-perfect, with Jennifer Lawrence coming off especially well as the young Mystique (and looking mighty fine in a pair of cool sixties thigh-high leather boots). I also really enjoyed Nicholas Hoult (from ABOUT A BOY) as Hank McCoy, whose transformation into Beast is one of the film's central character arcs, and makes an intriguing character.
As for the villains, we get an appropriately frosty January Jones, who mostly parades around in lingerie (no complaints here), and Kevin Bacon. Bacon's performance already seems to be dividing critics a bit, with some other reviewers saying he hams it up a little too much. I don't really agree, as it suits the sixties Bond-vibe they're going for, with the Hellfire Club being like a S.P.E.C.T.R.E for mutants, and Bacon being the Blofeld like head. He does indeed ham it up a bit, but he's essentially playing a sixties Bond villain, so it works.
If the film has any shortcomings, it's that Rose Byrne seems to disappear from the film after the first thirty minutes, with some scenes suggesting that a longer, romantic subplot between her and Xavier might have been trimmed from the film. That said, the film already runs an epic 135 minutes, so I guess something had to give (although if there is extra footage, I'd love to see it reinstated on Blu-ray).
Overall, I can't recommend X-MEN: FIRST CLASS highly enough if you're a fan of the series. It's an amazing way to rejuvenate the franchise, and I have my fingers crossed that Fox will take the same, ambitious approach (hopefully with Singer's input, as nobody knows how to film the X-MEN like he does) to the next WOLVERINE, and possibly, an X4 somewhere down the line. One can only hope, but this is a great start.
|Extra Tidbit:||The only thing I liked about X3: Kelsey Grammar as Beast. Apparently, that was the only aspect of Vaughn's X3 that made it to the screen. I wonder what the film would have been like if Vaughn had been able to continue?|