Friday, June 3, 2011
Review of X-MEN:FIRST CLASS
I would call myself a superhero fan. I haven't read as many comics as the average comic book nerd, but I have a vague knowledge of the characters. Honestly, there's just too many comic books and alternate universes that it all seems so confusing... I don't know where to begin. So I just don't read the comics (though I do own a few). Most of what I know about the X-Men is from the awesome 90's cartoon. That was great, and still the best representation of the comic in my opinion. The movies, for me, have been underwhelming so far.
The first one had a sleek look, but it was way too short (around 90 min. sans credits) to introduce over a dozen characters. Hugh Jackman was awesome, but James Marsden as Cyclops? At least at that time, he wasn't right for the role and much too young. I also hated the black leather costumes, which was quite the popular trend at the time thanks to THE MATRIX. X2 was an improvement but still, Marsden wasn't any better and Halle Berry seemed to get worse as Storm (Angela Bassett was clearly the better choice, unfortunately she turned it down). X-Men 3 wasn't as bad as everyone said, but it wasn't good. They threw too many characters at us, and was too ambitious to be a focused film. And that Wolverine movie? Hugh Jackman was great as usual, but the writing, special effects and directing were bottom of the barrel.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is an attempt to reboot the franchise, and it does what the franchise should've done in the first place. It starts at the beginning. Just like the original 11 years ago, this one starts off in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. A boy named Erik (Magneto) is being separated from his mother by soldiers, and his rage allows him to bend metal objects. But instead of jumping ahead 50 years, we stay back in the past. We see how an evil german doctor (Kevin Bacon) takes advantage of young Erik, trying to harness his power. He even kills the boy's mother in order to unleash his power. We also get to see 10 year old Charles (Prof. X) as he meets young Raven (later to become Mystique), and the two immediately bond when they discover that they're both mutants. And that's just the pre-title sequence!
The first act (taking place in 1962) consists of Erik (Michael Fassbender) tracking down the Nazi's responsible for his mother's death, all the while Charles (James McAvoy) meets a CIA operative named Moria (Rose Byrne) and decides to join her as she hunts down Sebastian Shaw (the ex-nazi played by Bacon), a mutant who plans to start WWIII. During a botched attempt to capture Shaw, Charles meets Erik and the two decide to work together. With the help of a tracking device made by Hank McKoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), they find other mutants to help them on their mission, including: Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Havoc (Lucas Till), Darwin (Edi Gathegi), and Banshee (Caleb Jones). This takes up most of the second act as the team begins to train. The last act, of course, is the finale that cleverly uses the Cuban Missile Crisis as the backdrop for the battle.
There is alot going on here. This film is extremely ambitious, especially for being only 131 min. While there are quite a few things to nitpick about, there are also several things that the film gets right. Let's talk about the casting: First and foremost, is Michael Fassbender. He is absolutely captivating as Erik. He's got a dark character to grapple with, and relishes every minute. It's a cool and confident performance, that anchors the whole production down. My favorite scene is in the first act, when he finds two Nazi's in Argentina, and viciously disposes of them. One of the most bad ass scenes ever in a superhero film! James McAvoy is also perfectly cast as Charles. It's nice to see him trying to pick up ladies while he slams beers. He's a perfect Yin to Fassbender's Yang. Coming hot off of her recent Oscar nomination (Winter's bone), Jennifer Lawrence proves to be one of the best actors of her generation. Her Raven is a terrific portrayal of a young girl struggling with accepting her powers. She nails it. And, I must say, is one of the hottest things to hit the screen in years. I like how she's not super skinny. Curvy in all the right places. YES! Let's just hope she doesn't fall into the Reese Witherspoon trap and looses 40 pounds when she gets older. Reese, what happened? You used to be hot? Now I can cut class with your chin!
The supporting cast is a bit of a mixed bag, but I will talk about the people I liked first. Hoult is decent as the uptight Hank, and is approprately cheesy when he turns into Beast. Rose Byrne is solid as usual (and she gets to walk around in sexy lingerie too), but she disappears during most of the second half. Some scenes suggest that she had more screen time but may have been cut. Kevin Bacon is having a grand old time as a Bond-like villain. His early scenes when he's speaking German were surprisingly convincing (glad the film used subtitles), and his "over the top" stuff later is fun. The movie is also loaded with some of my favorite character actors. Oliver Platt is very amusing as a CIA agent, James Remar and Ray Wise play Government officials, and it's always a pleasure to see Michael Ironside in any theatrical film. There is also a hilarious cameo that contains one of the best uses of the F-word ever in a PG13 movie.
The tone is nearly perfect here. It feels more like a retro spy movie than a superhero flick (especially in the first half). It also has something that most hero films lack, sex appeal. This movie is oozing with sexuality and tension that's refreshing. It definitely gives the movie an extra edge. Matthew Vaughn still proves that he's a terrific and entertaining filmmaker, while still retaining a distinct style. The action scenes are handled with confident precision and have a great energy to them. I have liked all of his films so far (LAYER CAKE, STARDUST, KICK-ASS), and can't wait to see what he'll tackle next. I love the production design and clever photography, mixed with some unique editing (great transitions and use of splitscreen).The score by relative newcomer Henry Jackman is pretty damn good. I loved the use of 60's baritone guitars, and the corny theme brought in at the finale made me smile.
There are a number of minor problems that keep the movie from becoming a masterpiece. Even though I liked Kevin Bacon, his mutant henchman came across a little too dumb for me. Azazel (Jason Flemying) is fine, but severely underdeveloped. Riptide, however, is just stupid. Played by Alex Gonzalez, he just broodingly smirks in every scene as he makes hurricanes in his palm. Kinda lame. January Jones as Emma Frost is just not very good. She looks fine (though I think she looks too manufactured and plastic looking for me to find attractive), but her line delivery is stiff and stilted. Thankfully, she's not in it a whole lot. Banshee and Havoc are fine, but I didn't buy their modern emo hairstyles in 1962. They got the production design right, would it have killed them to get the hair right? The worst performance belongs to Zoe Kravitz, who displays no charisma at all during any of her scenes. She's pretty flat.
The script isn't awful, but there are things from keeping it great. There was one phrase repeated throughout the film that made me cringe. "Mutant, and proud!" I love cheesiness, but I don't think I was supposed to snicker every time someone said that. I also wish the movie was about a half hour longer. There are only one or two scenes with Charles and Erik discussing the fate of mutants. We needed more interaction between them so when things happen in future scenes, they would have more impact. Some other characters seemed to get shoved in the corner later in the film, and I think if it was longer, the audience would have a better understanding of everyone.
With that said, this film handles multiple characters better than any other X-Men film. I was thoroughly entertained throughout. The stuff that works REALLY WORKS, and diminishes the things that don't. I'm sure many hardcore Comic Book fans will have their own gripes about how they handled certain characters, and who they didn't include, and blah blah blah. Here's something you fanboys should know: It is virtually impossible to make a superhero film like a comic book. It won't happen! So stop it! There's just too much source material, and it can't all be used. The best thing a filmmaker can do is take the cliff notes of the source material, and capture the essence of the comic book in the movie. And Matthew Vaughn does a fine job of that here.
I really wasn't expecting much from this since I didn't like the others, and I;m happy to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the result. I've seen it twice now (once at a press screening and once with my daughter), and enjoyed it both times. It's not a perfect film, but a great movie to see during the hot summer with a big bucket of popcorn. In a mostly disappointing summer at the movies so far (I didn't even care for THOR), X-MEN: FIRST CLASS delivers.
*** (out of ****)