Tuesday, June 07, 2011

REVIEW: X-Men First Class

X-Men First Class injects a very welcome shot of energy into an ailing franchise that, for awhile, seemed stuck in coach. The prequel truly lives up to its name.

After a strong first two films, the series slipped somewhat with a third movie that actually wasn't bad as many people claim it is, but was a marked step down from the Bryan Singer-directed pictures. Then, the series slipped even further with the mess that was Wolverine. You know your franchise is in trouble when not even Hugh Jackman's charisma can save it.

So it's understandable that the viewer might approach X-Men First Class with trepidation. But this is no Saved by the Bell with a big FX budget. This is terrific entertainment that  puts the series back on track by breathing new life in into it while still honoring what made  the classic series work, just like J.J. Abrams' Star Trek did.

At the heart of the franchise is the fascinating push/pull relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (Magneto), and X-Men First Class Knows this, focusing on the days when the men were allies, albeit uneasy ones. Both of them want the mutant clan to be accepted, but they each have very different philosophies behind attaining that goal, and the prequel smartly shows how each man formed his thinking.

It helps that two top-flight actors play the leads. Many reviewers have remarked that when Daniel Craig retires as James Bond, Michael Fassbender can take his place, and I wholeheartedly agree. The man has charisma and talent to spare. He holds the screen. filling in the lines that Ian McKellan had so skillfully drawn.  James McAvoy is just as good as the more empathetic Professor X. For that matter, McAvoy would make a pretty good Bond himself.

One of the best things about X-Men First Class is that the supporting cast is uniformly solid too. Befitting a movie about a team, the prequel  plays very well as an ensemble piece; everyone is good. But the best of the supporting players is Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), whose talent matches her beauty. She makes the plight of the shape-shifter Mystique not just fascinating, but moving as well. Previously, Mystique was an intriguing bad-ass, now she's a fully realized character.

If I have any quibble with the movie, it's that some of the supporting players tend to blend into the background and become indistinct. I never quite got, for instance, why one girl decided she had to turn bad other than that she sneered a lot. But that flaw is endemic to almost any movie that juggles so many characters. January Jones excels at playing ice queens, making Emma Frost a great villain. And the happily ubiquitous Rose Bryne turns in yet another appealing performance as Moria MacTaggert, a CIA agent on the mutants' side. Between Insidious, Bridesmaids and now this, Byrne is having a hell of a year.

Just as Byrne belongs on the A-list, so does director Matthew Vaughn, whose previous movies include Layer Cake, Stardust and Kick-Ass. Each of those movies had great visual energy, but X-Men First Class is the one that proves Vaughn can be as skillful a storyteller as he is a visual stylist. Not only is his action clean and exciting, but it's rather canny too. Many scenes have playful rhythms evocative of the first half of the 60s, when this film is set. With two leads who could make a good 007, X-Men First Class feels like a James Bond movie with super powers.

But X-Men First Class makes a more important distinction than that. It's the best comic book movie since The Dark Knight - and  is very nearly its equal.


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