X-Men – First Class (***½)

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These "X-Men" are first class all the way...

Earlier this year, a film series I had no true interest in, “The Fast and The Furious”, dropped the fifth film of its canon into theaters and thankfully, director Justin Lin, his writers, and the cast finally figured it out. That I liked the film was as equally a surprise for me as the realization that a “Fast and Furious”-themed film could actually, you know, be good. A couple of months have gone by since then and we now have another fifth film in a franchise that has, in my estimation, delivered one terrific film (“X2″), two passable films (“X-Men” and “X-Men: Last Stand”) , and one uninteresting bore (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”). After the diminishing returns of the last two entries in the “X-Men” series, we are now recipients of a relaunch of the franchise in the form of a prequel, primed to save a film series in need of major defibrillation. With the steady and confident hand of director Matthew Vaughn, the “X-Men” series is not just alive again, but it has a swagger and a freshness reminiscent of J.J. Abrams’ outstanding 2009 relaunch of “Star Trek.” I am not a comic book fan and my exposure to this world of “X-Men” emanates almost entirely from the films. So, I am not able to pick the film apart to the nth degree and explain what the filmmakers got right, got wrong, changed, or modified. And I honestly don’t want to. I can only speak about what is presented before me and “X-Men: First Class” is at times, one impressive movie. Opening in a German concentration camp in 1944 Poland, a child is separated from his mother in the most traumatic of means. Frightened and intensifying in anger, the child intently stares at the locked metal gate separating him from his mother and warps and bends it with his mind. Drawing the attention of Dr. Schmidt, an alias utilized by the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), the child, Erik Lensherr (played by Michael Fassbender as an adult), is told to move a coin on Schmidt’s table or lose his mother. When Erik plays into Shaw’s hands and reacts to a tragic moment in raging anger, Erik destroys everything in Shaw’s office, pleasing Shaw tremendously. Elsewhere, a British boy is woken in the middle of the night by noises downstairs. Believing that his mother is grabbing a late-night snack, he is startled to find a young girl, Raven, who possesses the abilities to shapeshift, stands clad in a blue lizard-like skin, and is desperate for a meal. The boy, Charles Xavier, is pleased to find another person with unexplainable traits and qualities and extends an invitation for Raven to stay with his family. Leaping forward approximately 20 years, Erik is seeking a way to find Shaw and attain retribution for the horrible actions Erik endured by Shaw’s hand. While Erik obsesses on how to find and kill his nemesis, a CIA agent named Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) is going undercover in Las Vegas with a bead on Shaw and two colleagues who may have direct influence on U.S. nuclear arms policy. In a heightened state of worldwide tension surrounding nuclear weapons and the possibility of their being used in international conflict, Shaw sees an opportunity to bring the world to a World War III where he and his fellow mutants can ascend into global power. MacTaggert’s work leads her to come across Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), now a professor teaching at Oxford. MacTaggert arranges for Charles and Raven to come to Washington and meet her colleagues and bosses in an effort to prove that mutants are indeed real. Once CIA officials are indeed convinced, Charles and Raven are taken by The Man In Black (Oliver Platt) to a secretive lockdown facility where other mutants are existing and living. As Charles and Raven integrate in with other mutants, familial connections are made and a kinship is formed which changes everyone’s lives. There is much more to “X-Men: First Class”, however much of it should be left to be discovered. The film does not necessarily deliver twists and turns inasmuch as it tells a riveting story which draws a viewer into feeling a personal connection with these mutants and generates palpable concern in what may happen to them. I was one of the few who felt that Matthew Vaughn’s last film, “Kick-Ass”, was a major misfire. I found it arrogant, vacant, and aiming way too hard to be the coolest kid in the room. I therefore brought a healthy amount of skepticism to Vaughn’s “X-Men” and found my walls chipped away minute-by-minute. Set in the 1960′s, “X-Men: First Class” at times looks and feels like a James Bond film, with clever costumes and set design, a finely tuned wit, and richly drawn characters who are not caricatures, but people…or mutants, we can identify with. When you position the film in a Nazi concentration camp, then place mutant young adults in a setting involving the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear war, and then toss in the melodrama involving tolerance of self and others, you can envision the slippery slope these writers had to navigate around. Although the film famously underwent several writing teams and a slew of drafts and rewrites of drafts and rewrites of those rewrites of drafts, what we end up with here is a well written character-driven action film that allows us the thrill of rediscovering these mutants and seeing them in new and original ways. Driving the film home are the performances of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Xavier and Erik, the future Professor X and Magneto, respectively. McAvoy exudes a steady calm about him which encompasses Patrick Stewart’s take on the character in the previous films and Fassbender is simply outstanding as a man desperately trying to reconcile his incredible superpower abilities with his bloodlust for revenge, and whether or not he identifies with this gang of mutants. In supporting roles, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult play well off of one another as potential love interests – Hoult’s Hank McCoy is a brilliant scientist who is desperately trying to cure his mutant abilities while Lawrence’s conflicted performance as Raven, later christened as Mystique, is intriguing. Lawrence is especially strong in the scenes where Raven struggles with her personal shame in hiding her true identity. Kevin Bacon is a fantastic villain, playing Shaw with a savvy and controlled maniacal bend. Zoe Kravitz has a few nice moments as a tattooed stripper who joins the crew and displays an ability to fly, and these characters and the rest of the large ensemble cast each get enough time to let us see learn how each of these mutants became absorbed into the X-Men universe. The only downside to all of this is the emotionally absent performance of January Jones as the gorgeous and telepathic Emma Frost, the right-hand-woman to Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw. I have said this before and I will say it again…I don’t get the appeal at all. Luckily, she alone cannot derail the film with her empty line readings and vacant stares. What is most appealing about “X-Men” is that even in acknowledging a rather harrowing and intense opening 10 minutes or so, the film is a great deal of fun. I literally enjoyed every non-January Jones moment, even when the narrative involving the mutants and the potential for a nuclear World War III feels a bit forced and cumbersome. There is tremendous chemistry amongst the ensemble and the film is focused and masterfully controlled. The action sequences are effective in their restraint and the visual effects are subtle, seamless, and effective. Reversing the fortunes of a dying film franchise, Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class” is a fantastic summer blockbuster, balancing thrills and seat-gripping action with characters we admire, connect with and actually want to stay with and learn more about. I was reminded of how refreshingly honest and profound the second film, “X2″ seemed to be, as that film always felt smarter and more timely than most superhero/action films of a similar nature. A balanced and confident film, “X-Men: First Class” is one of the finest films from the first half of 2011.