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Ten Word or Less Review: Washes out the foul taste of X3 and Wolverine.

Every film franchise runs aground over time.  Batman, Superman, Blade, no one’s immune.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get two quality outings, three if you’re very lucky.  By the time a series of films finds itself going around a fourth time, or God forbid, indulging in a prequel, you can be fairly certain the wheels are coming off things.  Producers are grabbing cash and it’s time to wait for the inevitable reboot.  Such was the state of Fox’s X-Men franchise.  After Bryan Singer’s superior X2, the third outing was handed over to all around asshat Brett Ratner.  He ran Singer’s finely tuned sports car into a brick wall, not even getting out of the driveway.  As if not satisfied by this, Fox then decided a stand-alone Wolverine movie would be prudent, a prequel no less.  The already wrecked sports car was subsequently given a tacky paint job and rims and then paraded around as if it was something to be proud of.  When news began that Fox would next be producing yet another X-men prequel, the collective groan could be heard from one side of the internet to the other.  Prequel, fifth movie, no original cast around, nothing good can come of this.  Check that last part, something skirting the edges of very good has come of this.

In an innovative and astute move, X-Men: First Class turns back the clock to the 1960’s.  We first meet burgeoning academic Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and revenge obsessed Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassenbinder) as compatible souls with differing ideologies.  Xavier is the benevolent mutant beginning to see the need to give voice to the mutants of the world.  Magneto agrees, but sees mutants as superior to humans and has little qualm about crushing them all.  Instigating his contempt for humans is his experience in a Nazi concentration camp.  He’s on a quest to find one Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an unaging mutant who worked for the Nazi’s and killed Eric’s mother in an attempt to provoke his mutant abilities.  Shaw is now neck deep in a plan to dupe the USA and the USSR into annihilating each other through Nuclear War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, leaving the door open for mutants to seize control.  X-Men: First Class cleverly builds fantasy on top of history and in turn crafts one of the smarter superhero vehicles to emerge from this over prolific genre.

Though we’ve been here and seen these people before things feel fresh and reinvigorated.  Director Matthew Vaughn has gotten hold of a worthy screenplay which relies more on character building and less on special effects set pieces.  McAvoy and Fassenbinder capture the gripping give and take Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan were able to establish in the first two X features.  Both are accomplished actors and though we’re taking a trip to the comic book store, like their esteemed elders they’re taking this as seriously as it needs to be taken.  Fassenbinder in particular captures the sympathetic but poisoned soul McKellan created with Magneto.  The guy does great seething.  And though they’re playing younger versions of characters already established never does either performance feel like imitation.

Acclaimed newcomer Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) inherits the part of young Mystique.  She gives genuine shading, complexity and motivation to the menacing but aloof part created by Rebecca Romijn.  Kevin Bacon gives a good, Bondian turn as Sebestain Shaw, the heavy out to wipe out those pesky humans.  It takes a seasoned pro like Bacon to make a villain like this one tick and after being away from the major movie spotlight for quite a while, it’s nice to see him turn in some subtle scenery chewing.  You don’t realize how much you miss Kevin Bacon until you realize he’s been gone.  There are a slew of great character actors popping up behind numerous corners and some nice, and thankfully clever, cameos from X-Men past, or future.  Whatever.  The only real bad news is that with most major X-Men characters spoken for, First Class is left with a fairly scrubby B-team to use for this outing.  Laser hula hoops, hummingbird wings and a high pitched voice do not great mutants make.

The real achiever here is director Matthew Vaughn.  No longer a rookie helmer, Vaugh has been a ballyhooed up and coming director since 2004, a long time to be earmarked as something special.  He made a smooth British crime thriller called Layer Cake, parlayed that into an underwhelming and forgettable fantasy pic called Stardust, then tackled last year’s pseudo superhero/sadomasochistic action flick Kick-Ass, a movie more people talked about than actually liked or watched.  First Class is his first Hollywood produced feature which doesn’t feel misshapen or at odds with itself.  It’s big budget but smart, epic in scale but with well thought out characterizations, comic book silly but not done tongue in cheek.  You can also give Vaughn credit for making a movie which actually embraces its 60’s set era.  Wolverine took place in the 80’s and nary was a Def Leppard or Duran Duran song on the soundtrack.  There’s a great use of swinging 60’s lingerie and judicious use of JFK speeches.  With the apparent blessing and guidance of original X-Man director Bryan Singer, Vaughn has rejuvenated a franchise which looked burned to the ground.

A few months ago I would’ve laid odds on this movie being a clunker and a waste.  The preview didn’t offer up anything very special, the last two films burned the audience something awful, Vaughn was looking to be a wash out as any kind of notable man behind the camera.  I would’ve lost that bet.  X-Men: First Class is a return to form for the series and shows that when enough attention is paid to the right kind of detail, you can make these films work on a grand scale.  The fifth movie/prequel of a tired franchise which hasn’t shown signs of life in years doesn’t have to be complete shit by default.  It can be a reinvigorating and fun experience that would stand along the giants of the genre, maybe not surpassing them, but at least commanding some fair amount of respect.

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