Friday, 3 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

Year: 2011
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence

Synopsis is here

Here's a turn out for the books. The summer blockbuster I had some of the most doubts about, turns out to be mega high on the entertainment factor.  I had already been burnt from the last two features from this franchise (the very bland X-3 and the dubious Wolverine) so my interest in the mutant adventures had cooled. It didn't help matters that after two lacklustre endeavours as of late (Pirates and The Hangover 2), that were meant to ignite the summer season, that my interest in this (nee the series) had cooled somewhat.

X-Men: First Class impressed me however, by being a simple, by the book, adventure film. We root for these characters because of their actions on the screen, not because we know who they are. The action is relatively bloodless (12-A) but it's clear, concise and to the point. What's more; the pace is brisk (didn't feel like two hours) and while Vaughn doesn't fully get the balance quite right of all those characters in my opinion (I think X-2 does it better) he does make sure that the conflict is high and investment in these people worthwhile. Despite the film being a prequel, Vaughan's direction (along with a decent screenplay by the four writers) helps build a strong background for people that we already know and a new found interest in them.

The ideas of placing the X-men in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis works well on two fronts as it means that every human is under the threat of war, while radiation would only advance mutations in those in already already have them. It's a neat plot thread that the film runs with well, using Kevin Bacon to do his smarmy, slimy worst (great cast pick). It's odd that despite being set in the middle of the civil rights movement, the film does draw that much from it. One of the things that made X-2 what it was that the parallels between Malcom X (Magneto) and Martin Luther King (Professor X) appeared to be much stronger, however you could say that this is a film where such facets are just about to be defined.

While that particular outlook is sidelined, Vaughan still sets about creating a solid structure of core beliefs an intimate relationships between the two main characters of the piece; Eric (Fassbender) and Charles (McAvoy) and their outer circles. Seeing how these relationships come together is a pleasure as these mutants are thrown into an era of change while slowly discovering their own personalities. Vaughan doesn't appear to be as developed in the theme of finding identity as the openly gay Byran Singer and it shows when looking at singular scenes. But what Vaughan do manage to capture is a similar spirit that was gouged out by the recent entries before it. I like the idea of Mystique echoing Rouge somewhat. I also like the fact that the friendship between Erik and Charles is a fast one that isn't just out and out friendly or combative but balanced on the edge of something. A subtle knowing that something big could come from both of them.

A lot of this is not only stems from Vaughn and the screenwriters but from a bright young cast who are up to the challenge. Much could be said about the films stylish retro 60's era setting (and man from uncle/bond plot) but it's the cast that give the film it's true freshness. both McAvoy and Fessbender are charming in their own special way. McAvoy has a smart, Hugh Grant thing going on, while Fassbender as a James Dean like, devil may care feel that draws attention to him in every scene he's in. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult hit the akward teen stage on the head, while the aforementioned Bacon doesn't have as much screen time as I would like but is just the right side of nasty. January Jones and Rose Byrne are pretty thankless in their roles but both show enough skin to make the teen audience not notice anyhow. Vaughan also decides upon himself to load the film with some great character actor cameos (Ray Wise, Michael Ironside, Oliver Platt) just to keep things ticking over as if his efficient use of pacing in the movie wasn't enough.

But what the main reason on why people will watch this is the action. I can witter on about all the over stuff till the cows come home. It means nothing to those who go "just to watch the movie" and in all honestly Vaughn does another good job here. He doesn't beat his strobe light Hit Girl set piece in Kick-ass, but he does give us clean, neat action set pieces which may not reach the dizzying heights of what many will expect this summer (Transformers 3 does bring a certain amount of promise whether I like it or not) but are certainly thrilling enough to keep one watching. The climatic sequence involving Magneto and a barrage of missiles is good enough to sit next to the likes of most the major moments within the franchise.

X-men: First Class is a taut prequel that had me entertained enough for me to go back and give The Last Stand another try. It provides an added depth to well known characters and wraps it up in a fast paced, tightly put together spy adventure package. It could be well worth the wait if Vaughn is allowed to take everything off the reigns.