Friday, June 10, 2011

'First Class' gives new life to dying franchise

When sequels have run their course and a franchise is running on fumes it is time to give up, right? Never! When all else fails, start over with a prequel. The “X-Men” series has gone the prequel route once before with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” It made money, but left few happy. So, now we have “X-Men: First Class,” one of the most satisfying films of the series.
“X-Men: First Class” presents the origins of the mutants Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, and Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, who were previously played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, but the younger models are now James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. We also learn the back story of the shapeshifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, stepping in for Rebecca Romijn), who, in a departure from the comics, is Charles' adopted sister.
In the later films, Erik and Charles are adversaries driven apart by an ideological split. Charles wants mutants to attempt to co-exist with humans and Erik wants mutants to reign having seen humanity's capacity for genocide during the Holocaust.
In this film we are shown their very different, but parallel lives and the point in which those paths intersect. Charles is an affluent English student, who recently graduated with degrees in the studies of genetics. Erik is a holocaust survivor turned brutal Nazi hunter. Charles has telepathic abilities and Erik the ability to control and draw metal to him like a magnet.
They meet and become fast friends and form an uneasy alliance with the FBI in hopes of being able to stop a common enemy, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Shaw, it turns out, was the mastermind pulling the strings behind the Cuban Missile Crisis. Now you know. Shaw also did cruel experiments on young Erik and now as an adult Erik is eager for revenge.
Other mutants are gathered for this battle, but, as is often the case with these films, many of them get lost in the shuffle. We are introduced to several characters, shown their abilities and later they get to show them off in elaborate action sequences. There are fun montages of these characters recruitment and training that, while entirely obligatory, have a brisk pace to them.
Characters like Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones) and Havok (Lucas Till) are given very little to do. They are simply there to fill out the team. The exceptions are Lawrence's Mystique and Nicholas Hoult's Hank McCoy, aka Beast. Lawrence and Hoult have a tentative flirtation and the direction that goes in ultimately feeds where her allegiances will fall.
While there are too many characters, the real focus is on Charles and Erik and their dynamic is well written by a team of screenwriters. McAvoy and Fassbender are very good together as you see the seeds of their love/hate relationship planted.
Director Matthew Vaughn, who ventured into the comic book hero realm in last year's “Kick Ass,” a subversive take on the genre, brings an energy to proceedings that nicely captures the 1960s time period. The first half of the film feels very Bond-like with Fassbender's Erik like a darker, more merciless version of 007. Fassbender has a commanding screen presence and he's charming, but he also makes Erik well rounded, both sympathetic and menacing.
McAvoy plays Charles as an English playboy who uses his intellect and wit to pick up women. His pick up lines are rather amusing and oddly effective. As the film progresses though we see flashes of the compassionate leader he'll become.
Bacon makes for a great over-the-top villain. He plays it like a Bond villain — cool, collected, but with a mischievous glint in his eyes. He's surrounded by a trio of mutant henchmen who barely register, two of them don't even have an dialogue. The talkative one is Emma Frost, but, as portrayed by January Jones, you wish she spoke less. Jones, a very attractive woman, is a flat, one-note actress (at least from what I've seen, but I haven't seen her in the acclaimed TV show “Mad Men”) who is easily the weakest link of the film.
Everything builds to climatic showdown to prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis that is rather spectacular. The historical setting gives a certain weight to the events.
Comic book purist will surely nitpick everything that was altered from the source material, but, within the context of the film, everything works and is dramatically satisfying. This is summer film as it should be: smart, fun, witty and entertaining.

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