Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.
Based on a true court
case first tried in 1953 Evelyn recounts the story of a man on a mission. Rumpled pub-crawler Desmond Doyle (Pierce Brosnan) has a streak
of bad luck when he loses his wife to another man the day after
Christmas and then loses his three
children Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur) Maurice (Hugh McDonagh) and Dermot (Niall Beagan) to the Catholic
church and Irish courts. That he's without a wife and a regular job prompts the courts to place the tots in an
orphanage which he unsucessfully tries to steal them from. This of course was not a good move. He
gets caught and the courts see this as a strike
against him. Doyle does not give up--instead he gets his life together. But it
turns out that an obscure law that has never
been tried in the courts before requires that Doyle's estranged spouse give him
custody of the kids so he enlists several lawyers (Alan Bates
Aidan Quinn and Stephen Rea) to help him get
In the end the story ends happy ever
after but not without its up and downs. Doyle must
face the hardship of living without his children and
his children must suffer through living in a miserable
Although this story line is based in predictibility-land the actors
still come out on top. Brosnan's character with his native Irish accent anti-Bond dishevelment and
pitful story is charming. Each time he leaves the
screen he leaves you wanting more. It seems
as though this role was made for him. We are used to seeing
him in the coolly unrealistic role of James Bond and this is a refreshing change. He shows the
true acting skills that he really has as a father in
agony. Julianna Margulies
also surprises with her protrayal of Bernadette
Doyle's love interest. She is charming and feisty as
a bartender who enlists her solicitor brother's help to put the devastated father's family back together again.
He may be a double Oscar nominee but Bruce Beresford's directing here is mediocre. The director whose only decent film in recent years was 1999's Double Jeopardy makes a script that is already too obvious painfully so. Pacing is a little slow some of it is corny (ie: rays of sunshine representing faith) and some of it seems unnecessary (a love-triangle plot). The great acting and chemistry between Doyle and his kids especially daughter Evelyn is the best part about this movie.