Monday, January 9, 2012
Movie Review: "X-Men: First Class" by David Pretty
Welcome, Danger Room Denizens!
X-Men: First Class is a welcome revelation. Bryan Singer returns to the franchise, this time in the capacity of producer. Here he's teamed up with the Matthew Vaughn, the ballsy director of Layer Cake and Kick-Ass and together they put the mutant saga right back on track.
Cue the trailer!
The original X-Men comic launched in September of 1963, just a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis nearly wiped humanity off the face of the earth. Kudos to Vaughn and his fellow screenwriters (Jane Goldman, Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz) for using this real-life event as a lynchpin for their story. This helps to ground the film's more fanciful elements, honors the comic book's decade of origin and provides ample opportunity to display some delightfully retro production design. I fact, from here on in I plan to refer to the film as X-Men: Mad Mutants.
As if the producers knew exactly how much I loved the Magneto origin scene in the first X-Men, they respectfully port an extended version over here. After the cruel Nazi scientist Klaus Schmidt (Kevin Bacon) punishes young Erik Lensherr after failing to manifest his powers on command, you can certainly forgive his outlook on life as an adult. In a concurrent scene of notable contrast, a young telepath named Charles Xavier catches the pint-sized shape-shifter Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence) stealing from the kitchen of his parent's opulent estate. The two form a lasting bond which sustains them into adulthood.
The action leaps eighteen years onto the future to 1962. The adult Erik (Michael Fassbender) is obsessively trying to hunt down Schmidt, who now goes by the name of Sebastian Shaw. Shaw flagrantly exhibits his own mutant gifts, including the handy ability to absorb energy and deliver it back with a touch. He's assembled a small cadre of similarly-powered allies including the typhoon-wizard Riptide (Álex González), the teleporter Azazel (Jason Flemyng) and a telepathic hottie named Emma Frost (January Jones). Together they seek to trigger a nuclear exchange between the Americans and the Soviets in the hope of slaughtering the human population and bolstering the mutants.
When CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) encounters Shaw and his cohorts, she seeks out Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who's finishing up his thesis on mutancy at Oxford University. When Xavier and Raven out themselves, the government sets them up with their own department and they immediately begin recruiting mutants. Soon their ranks include such notable characters as Hank "Beast" McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), Sean "Banshee" Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones) and Alex Summers a.k.a. Havok (Lucas Till). It's not long before both sides are battling for the fate of humanity as a warhead-laden Russian ship nears an invisible line in the waters off Cuba..
X-Men: Mad Mutants is a real marvel, no pun intended. It's as if the X-Men saga was infused with the same gumption that made Batman Begins such a resounding success. Anyone who classifies themselves as an X-fan will really dig how things come together here. We don't just arbitrarily see mutants chose sides, the script is so patient and generous that we can actually anticipate their decisions. My only regret is that small choices made in the original trilogy effected the "timeline" depicted here. For example, it would have been cool to see "Iceman" a.k.a. Bobby Drake included in this "First Class", but he was established as a teenager in the previous films.
Nevertheless, it's a treat to see Hank McCoy develop Cerebro and the resulting mutant recruitment montage. I love the underground bomb shelter functioning as a Mark I Danger Room. It's fun to see the X-men jetting around in an prototype Blackbird. Hank's desire to find a cure results in his additional mutation, which fans have come to expect. Mystique slowly comes to accept her appearance and evolves into the self-assured militant seen in subsequent entries. And don't even get me started on the brilliant cameos, none of which I'll presume to ruin here!
I may be overstepping a hunch here, but it seems as if Bryan Singer's influence can be felt in the casting choices as well. James McAvoy is inspired genius as Xavier. It's fun to see a young Professor X if only to rebut critics of the first film who criticized the characters for not "getting off on their own powers". Indeed, Charles uses his telepathy here to impress mini-skirted hotties at every opportunity as if it's some sort of Criss Angel party trick . Just like Jean-Luc Picard, it turns out that Xavier was also a bit of a hell-raiser when he was young.
There's a real depth to McAvoy's performance which is largely absent in most super hero flicks. This is mostly due to the fact that he approaches the material as if it's any other dramatic action film. The fact that there are teleporting demons, diamond-skinned psychics and submarines suspended in mid air is irrelevant. What remains is a portrayal of slowly eroding, child-like innocence after Xavier realizes that some people will engage in evil actions just to foster their own agendas.
I wish I could mention Michael Fassbender simultaneously, since he's equally adept. Now getting rave reviews for his brave performance in Shame, Fassbender actually augments Ian McKellen's incredible showing in the original films. Every look, every gesture and every line reading seems to remind us that he's been privy to humanity's boundless cruelty first-hand. Between his revealing portrayal of Magneto and the cold hard reality posed by the script's last act, his final actions shouldn't come a complete surprise to anyone.
These two fantastic actors get to share considerable screen time together. In doing so, their relationship seems unbreakable. Half way through the film you begin to realize that you're watching a prequel this isn't going to denigrate what's already been established. I'd say George Lucas needs to watch this and take notes, but what's the point?
In fact the scene where Xavier helps Erik overcome his mental block in moving massive objects is downright sublime. It's passionately written and acted, shows how Magneto became the Master of Magnetism and puts an intriguing spin on the original films. After all, we've just seen how Lensherr's arch-rival was instrumental in helping Magneto unlock his full powers, which he now uses to actively combat Xavier's protegees.
Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique is another incredible find. I'm now left to wonder what Rebecca Romijn might have done had she been given a similarly meaty role in the original films. Regardless, Jennifer is absolutely fantastic. Her pre-evil Mystique is surprisingly innocent, charming, self-conflicted and a tad bratty. It's a sharp contrast to the "Black Widow" persona exhibited in the other films, but thanks to the clever script, these differences don't seem anathema.
Okay, I'll admit it, I still see Kevin Bacon as that punk teenager in Footloose. Imagine my surprise when Kevin (as Schmidt) started speaking flawless German in the concentration camp sequence. Turns out, he's great as the film's main villain, gleefully and effortlessly rocking sideburns, ascots and inhuman levels of confident smarm. His Sebastian Shaw is a supremely cocky S.O.B. who would never entertain the thought that he might be wrong, even for a second. Sounds like the perfect 2012 Republican party nominee, huh?
As for poor January Jones, she looks dazed and confused as Emma Frost. Instead of projecting the sharp tongue and emancipated sluttiness of the White Queen, January comes off like Betty Draper just after she opened Don's secret desk drawer. It's as if she got chloroformed after wandered onto the set by mistake, woke up to dressed in an impossibly revealing costume and was then forced to read lines off of a cue card. Where's the wit? The concentrated bitchiness? Just read Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men and you'll understand what I mean.
In contrast, Rose Byrne is feisty and no-nonsense as Moira MacTaggert, but, damn, couldn't they have kept her Scottish somehow? Lucas Till's Havoc is appropriately surly and out of patience. Caleb Landry Jones is more of a physical presence as Banshee, but he's a welcome one. He always sounds as if he's got marbles in his mouth, presumably while simulating an Irish accent.
Nicholas Hoult as Beast/Hank McCoy seems a bit too "aww, shucks" for my tastes but I believe this is part of the character's arc. Even at the end he hasn't really had time to acclimate to his new "beastly" appearance, so his bad temper is certainly excusable. Admittedly, Kelsey Grammer's incarnation of Beast in the otherwise forgettable X-Men The Last Stand represents the final evolutionary step for this beloved character.
I'm of two minds when it comes to the costumes and make-up. On one hand I find it refreshing that Vaughn is unrepentantly dedicated to recreating comic book imagery as best he can. On the other hand, the movie often serves as Exhibit "A" as to why a four-color, two dimensional piece of art sometimes looks distractingly infantile when translated to film.
The makeup for characters like Azazel and Beast are also unabashedly primary and kinda goofy-looking. It's as if the film-makers didn't realize just how bright these colors would pop on celluloid. Beast often resembles a particularly loopy Jim Henson creation: like a disproportionate muppet head grafted onto an actor's body. In a film that's otherwise so committed to realism, such things are distractingly obvious.
The film also suffers a bit as it barrels mindlessly towards it's obligatory action finale. The CGI grows increasingly plentiful as well as cartoonish. Also there are inexplicably protracted scenes with the Russian and American fleet captains reacting to the mutant war happening around them. Frankly, this time would have been much better served actually focusing on the combatants.
And while I respect the director's commitment to use practical, on-camera flying effects, it also conjures up shades of the 1978 Superman movie. The actors look immobile and vaguely petrified, so it's not hard to tell that they're suspended from a wire some distance off the ground. Surely there must be a more convincing way to do this by now?
When I catch myself resorting to minor gripes like this, I have to confess that the film itself is quite solid. In fact X-Men: Mad Mutants is actually pretty friggin' good. It's smart, relevant, brilliantly acted, colorful, and unabashedly embraces some of the goofier trappings of the comic book medium. Plus, it's got Ren McCormack in a silly hat.
Most importantly, the film serves it's primary function as a cinematic enema, helping us forget that X-Men: The Last Stand even exists.