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.
Love means never having to say you're sorry; it's a many splendored thing; it's all you need. But in tennis love means zero; it means you lose. Or does it? For Peter Colt (Paul Bettany) a British pro tennis player seeded near the bottom of the world tennis ranks love actually inspires him. After scoring a wild card to play in the prestigious Wimbledon tournament he meets and falls for the rising and highly competitive American tennis star Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) fueling a winning streak he hasn't had since he began his career. For Lizzie however the love thing doesn't necessarily work out as well. Her feelings for Peter become a distraction throwing her off her game. Hmmm. Can these two crazy kids keep it together long enough so Peter can fulfill his lifelong dream of winning the men's singles title even if it means his muse might have to sacrifice her first Wimbledon title?
Kirsten Dunst may be what draws you in but Paul Bettany is the reason you don't walk out. The British actor who made an impression with American audiences playing the oh-so-witty Chaucer in A Knight's Tale and then wowed them in Oscar winners such as A Beautiful Mind and Master and Commander doesn't disappoint in his first lead role. Bettany's Peter embodies all that charm we've come to love and expect in our British actors--although thankfully not as floppy as Hugh Grant--he stumbles about and apologizes profusely. It's so cute. And he makes a pretty darn believable tennis player to boot (one would hope so after the intense training session the actors apparently had to go through to prepare for the movie). Unfortunately Dunst does not fare as well. Her Lizzie is appealing and she adequately handles the tennis stuff--but she ultimately fails to connect with her male lead making their relationship seem forced. Their beginning sparks are fun but when there's suppose to be a real flame igniting between them you're left scratching your head wondering just when where and why they fell in love so hard so fast. Yep that's a big red flag.
I've said sports movies usually work (see the Mr. 3000 review). To clarify: That is team sports. Sport movies where the action revolves around a single competitor are harder to pull off. It's just not as exciting watching an underdog struggle with himself in order to win. Luckily director Richard Loncraine (HBO's My House in Umbria) seems to know this fact. Even though Peter takes Centre Court (that's the British way of spelling it) Loncraine tries to at least create a more complete picture giving us a glimpse into the world of tennis as well as delving into the traditions of Wimbledon and how the Brits feel about the prestigious tournament where British champions are few and far between. Loncraine also utilizes real-life tennis pros such as John McEnroe and Chris Evert who appear as announcers to liven up the proceedings. Even the action on the court with close-up shots of the ball whizzing over the net gets the blood pumping a little--wish there was a lot more of that. But then of course one could just turn on the TV and watch the real Wimbledon instead watching a silly run-of-the-mill romantic comedy set there.