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.
Cradle 2 the Grave isn't going to be known as one of those action flicks that thrills you but also has a surprisingly interesting story to back it up. Still Cradle has enough credible plot points to keep things moving until the next fight sequence. The action begins with Tony Fait (Earl "DMX" Simmons) and his fiercely devoted crew--including the stunning Daria (Gabrielle Union) and comic relief Tommy (Anthony Anderson)--pulling off a complex jewelry heist and snagging a valuable cache of black diamonds. These diamonds aren't what they appear to be but are actually something much more powerful--and deadly. Su (Jet Li) working for the Taiwanese government as a secret agent must retrieve them before its too late. Fait would be happy to hand over the stones for the right price but word of their value has hit the street and they are stolen by a powerful crime lord (Chi McBride). Su and the crimelord end up being the least of Fait's problems however when Su's ex-partner Ling (Mark Dacascos) now a ruthless arms dealer enters the picture. He and his treacherous woman (Kelly Hu) will stop at nothing to get those black baubles including kidnapping Fait's daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd). OK things just got personal. Fait Su and company have to work together to fight off the onslaught of nasties exact revenge stop possible world destruction and get back the only thing Fait cares about in the world--his daughter.
Is it me or is Jet Li just too damn cool for words? The whole martial arts arena has certainly been stepped up with the Jackie Chan's and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon's of the world but Li brings back that calm yet deadly demeanor the late Bruce Lee made so popular. Granted Li hasn't had the same success in the U.S. as Chan--save for maybe his American debut performance in the smokin' Romeo Must Die. But he sure is impressive on-screen kicking the bejesus outta someone without blinking an eye no matter what the asinine plot line. Hip-hop singer DMX who also appeared in Romeo Must Die (along with Anderson) holds his own as a tough nut über-thief but he finds a little difficulty emoting when the time comes. The hilarious Anderson and the oh-so-alluring Union are quickly becoming the "It" black actors (him: Kangaroo Jack Barbershop; her: Deliver Us From Eva the upcoming Bad Boys 2) while the forever-irritating Tom Arnold pops up as a demolition surplus dealer (but make sure to stay all the way through the credits to watch a hilarious exchange between him and Anderson). Hurd does an nice turn as the feisty Vanessa who is fairly resourceful for a kidnapped 10-year-old. It's easy to see the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
Enough with all the superfluous plot lines and acting analysis--let's get down to real reason the movie exists. Action. High octane fist-flyin' action and as a self-proclaimed action junkie--and newly transformed martial arts fan--Cradle certainly doesn't disappoint. Director/cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak who worked with Li and DMX on Romeo Must Die knows how to frame the martial arts sequences while using the pounding hip-hop soundtrack and urban locale to full effect. One of the more fast-paced sequences has Fait outrunning police cars on a three-wheel ATV eventually jumping the bike from rooftop to rooftop while Su in another location is fighting off a dozen guys in a boxing pit including an aggressive midget who would like to smash Su's face in but ends becoming a device to fend off the rest. All while DMX is belting out a jammin' song. Great stuff. Of course you wait for the ultimate showdown between Su and his nemesis Ling and when it comes it's a jaw-clencher. The film is just a purely mindless roller-coaster ride.