Review: X-MEN FIRST CLASS - 60's Bond Inspired Triumph, Fantastic Entertainment

rating: 4

(Review re-posted as the movie is out in U.K. cinema's today!) Sometimes I really hate reviewing movies. Of course that€™s not saying I€™m trying to bite the hand that feeds me, just that there are times when you have the privilege to watch something before anyone else and you just want to sit back and enjoy €“ to forget the note-taking, the analysis, trying to keep yourself one step removed from complete fan-boy abandonment. Admittedly when it comes to genre movie-making, and in particular our current love affair with comic book movies it€™s usually more difficult. What can I say, I€™m a fan. Which of course makes poorly made comic book movies all the more disappointing, all the more crushing after all the expectation. With X-Men: First Class, Marvel€™s 60€™s set re-invigoration of the X-universe after the less than stellar X-Men 3: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I hardly even bothered to take notes after the first 15 minutes because frankly, I was just enjoying myself too damn much. Matthew Vaughn, producer turned director of Kick Ass, a man with a chequered X-men past after walking away from director duties on X-Men: The Last Stand, has grasped this early days strand of the saga and created a fantastic, faithful piece of entertainment. The fact that the man on producer duties is that other X-Men alum Bryan Singer makes the triumph all the more sweet. Primarily a story about the beginnings of the complex relationship between Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) before they take on their more familiar mantles of Professor X and Magneto, Vaughn and his writing partner Jane Goldman have managed to combine elements encompassing revenge, loyalty, prejudice, self-discovery, hatred, and the danger and destruction of ideals. And yeah, the Cuban Missile Crisis. All without sacrificing a slick, narrative drive, and what amounts to satisfyingly grown-up comic book movie-making. It all begins back where we were in Singer€™s original with Lensherr and his parents separated at a concentration camp and Erik€™s fury twisting the camp gates into scrap metal, but here we get a glimpse of the immediate aftermath, and Erik€™s horrifically life-changing meeting with the Nazi Doctor Schmidt. A man whose eugenics research causes him to understand, and to delight in, the young Lensherr€™s mutation. It€™s the beginning of Erik€™s fractious view of humanity and his vengeful path that eventually crosses with Charles and his more privileged existence. Albeit an existence that includes time-freezing, mind-control, a shape-shifting adopted sister called Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), and ensnarement by the CIA and its secret Division X. Before all that Charles is simply a charmingly itinerant academic in Oxford, using his powers to pick up women and seemingly without any inclination to greater responsibility, beyond making sure Raven doesn€™t follow his example in the drinking stakes. The difference between Erik€™s and Charles€™ activities spelled out by their respective use of a gun, and a yard of ale. Eventually of course the focus of Erik€™s vengeance and Charles€™ Division X backed adventures come to a head when both become engaged in pursuing the enigmatic Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an energy manipulating mutant and patently more youthful Dr Schmidt, a mutant with his own Hellfire Club, including the telepathic Emma Frost (Jennifer Jones), the whirlwind creating Riptide (Alex Gonzalez), and the dimension hopping demon Azazel (Vaughn€™s good luck charm Jason Flemyng). Shaw has already decided that integration with their homo sapiens brethren is a lost cause and escalates the burgeoning conflict between the US and the USSR over missile installations in Cuba in order to bring about mankind€™s destruction. It€™s a great conceit €“ never letting humanity off the hook for its own stupidity (and believe me the human powers that be in First Class are genuine idiots), but adding a layer of fantastical complexity. As Vaughn himself has said, mutants manipulating governments into acts of self-destructive lunacy actually makes more sense than them just doing it themselves. As for the (yet to be called) X-Men, after convincing Erik to join him in bringing down Shaw, Charles uses Cerebro 1.0, designed and built by Division X€™s Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), to find other mutants for their side, eventually gathering together Havok (Lucas Till), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), and Darwin (Edi Gathegi). Rounding out the team (and the instigator of the Shaw investigation) is CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne). It€™s a great mix of smart casting and generally well-rounded characters; as Raven/Mystique, Jennifer Lawrence has her own descent to the dark side and a sweetly effective relationship with Hank McCoy that underlines the theme of societal acceptance of those that are different, and the desire to hide, to blend in. But there is an inevitable disparity between the rest of the cast and the double-act of Lensherr and Xavier. That combination of Fassbender and McAvoy is the granite core of First Class, to the point where it€™s already practically impossible to imagine anyone else playing those roles. It€™s a difficult trick creating younger versions of already established personas, but Vaughn and his actors wisely made the choice to start from scratch and to eschew any reference to previous performance. These are after all Erik€™s and Charles€™ raw, unformed selves, sharpening the paths they€™ll take, paths will cause their friendship to fracture. As Xavier, McAvoy is both mature and impish, pragmatic and impulsive, charming, and often frustratingly naïve when it comes to the inclinations and focus of his fellow mutants. It€™s a whole new side to Professor X, and you almost forget the physical tragedy he€™s going to ultimately suffer. How can this active, mercurial Xavier ever be brought so low. The real casting coup though is Fassbender. He is, if you€™ll excuse the pun, magnetic. He literally holds the screen in any scene he€™s in; the contretemps in the Argentinian bar is one of the most enjoyable I€™ve seen this year. His Erik is a damaged, razor-sharp entity of revenge, managing to convey a combination of effortless cool, and barely supressed fury. He is tragic, and heroic, and like the best characters, flawed, fighting the good fight against Shaw, not because Shaw€™s plans are universally evil but because Shaw is Erik€™s personal embodiment of evil. No-one, not even Charles, quite understands what he thinks, or wants. Fassbender also seems born to play in the 60s playground created by Vaughn and production designer Chris Seagers. It€™s a brilliant scenario of deliberately Bond-esque design and architecture, mixed with the thankfully non 21st century infused morality of Ian Fleming and TV€™s Mad Men, making the movie€™s inhabitants seem more, well, human. Vaughn has often expressed his desire to make a Bond film, but here he€™s gone one better, crafting a superior, exciting, and intelligent comic book movie around an anti-Bond, who€™s just as cool, just as calculating and necessarily cruel, but existing in a parallel universe where the fantastic is born from genetic mutation and not Q€™s laboratory. But perhaps Vaughn€™s best trick is infusing a real emotional core within X-Men: First Class€™s expected stylish action and special effects. Leaving us on a tropical beach with the last vestiges of Erik€™s humanity disappearing, like blood running into the sand. X-Men: First Class is a triumph and lives up to the early films of Bryan Singer and is a reboot gamble that hopefully pays off for Fox. Look out soon for more OWF writers to give their own take on this movie and also for a lengthy discussion I took part in with Matthew Vaughn on how his X-Men movie came together... X-Men: First Class opens in the U.K. on June 1st and in the U.S. on June 3rd.
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Film writer, drinker of Guinness. Part-time astronaut. Man who thinks there are only two real Indiana Jones movies, writing loglines should be an Olympic event, and that science fiction, comic book movies, 007, and Hal Hartley's Simple Men are the cures for most evils. Currently scripting.