03 June 2011

X-Men: First Class

From left, Caleb Landry Jones, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, James McAvoy and Lucas Till are shown in a scene from "X-Men: First Class."
The ideas, themes and characters of “X-Men: First Class” feel fresh and relevant despite its position as the fifth film in the series and taking place in the early 1960s during the build-up to the Cold War.

The action actually begins in 1944 for brief glimpses of the children who will become Professor Charles Xavier and his archenemy, Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto.

We meet young Erik, who has power over metal, in a concentration camp in Poland and watch as a doctor, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), murders his mother in front of him. Shaw then presumes to take the boy under his wing to teach him how to control his powers.

The telepathic Charles, on the other hand, lives in luxury, growing up in a palatial mansion and befriending a pretty, young intruder in his home who also happens to be a blue-skinned, shapeshifting mutant.

Fast-forward to 1962, when a scientist (Rose Byrne) working for the CIA enlists the aid of Charles (James McAvoy), now a professor specializing in genetic mutations. With help from the U.S. government, he starts tracking down other mutants, leading him to Erik (Michael Fassbender). The two become fast friends, forming a recruiting team of sorts, even though their ultimate goals differ greatly—Charles wants to offer guidance and training for others like him, to show them they are not alone; Erik wants to kill Shaw, who also is a mutant, and the others he holds responsible for his mother’s death.

Shaw, meanwhile, is greasing the wheels of the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the aim of starting World War III and creating an opportunity for mutants to seize power amid the certain destruction. If his rhetoric about mutants and their place in the world sounds familiar, well, there’s a good reason for it.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn (“Kick-Ass,” 2010) from a screenplay credited to the director and three others, based on a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer (director of the first two “X-Men” films; he’s also back onboard as a producer), “First Class” moves at a breakneck pace throughout its 131 minutes without ever feeling rushed. With so many characters to introduce or reintroduce, Vaughn has a lot of ground to cover, and he does it in a way that at once feels retro and modern. Some of the opening scenes in particular have the feel of an early James Bond movie.

The casting, including one perfect cameo, is exceptionally strong, with McAvoy anchoring the movie and Fassbender in a breakout, star-making performance. There are many delights in this movie, and the greatest is seeing the start of the literal and figurative chess match between Professor X and Magneto, as played by these two fine actors. It’s so compelling that its origins easily could have been played out over more than just one film.

With an undeniable, propulsive energy, “First Class” feels like the beginning of a new big-screen franchise rather than the latest entry in one that has existed for several years and films. It's similar to J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” in that respect.

More importantly, “First Class” is the best “X-Men” movie to date. This is how you do a summer blockbuster.

Greg’s Grade: A-

(Rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image. 131 minutes.)

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