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.
Shedding many of those trappings that make a James Bond movie well a James Bond movie Quantum of Solace is really the first sequel ever in the long-running series. While it’s always exciting something gets seriously shaken and stirred in the translation. Picking up exactly where the brilliant Casino Royale left off we see Bond (Daniel Craig) trying to get to the bottom of why his love Vesper Lynd had to die jumping right into the first of many MANY chases as he traverses six countries. Still on rogue patrol Bond then inadvertently meets the crafty and gorgeous Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who introduces Bond to the evil Dominic Green (Mathieu Amalric) the head of an eco-phony stealth operation angling for some prime desert land while financing a crooked Bolivian general’s planned coup. With the ever resourceful M (Judi Dench) trying to keep him in line at all times Bond must put his revenge plans on hold as he crosses paths not only with Greene and his fake pro-environment front but also the intriguing and mysterious group known as Quantum. In this outing Daniel Craig -- leaner and meaner than any previous Bond -- really becomes a man of single-minded determination and grit. He’s less like the James Bond we know and love and more a humorless killing machine like Jason Bourne (those two should really get together). Still Craig is such a compelling actor that we are with him all the way even if he doesn’t go for the suave Bond moves. Olga Kurylenko is a great foil but not totally in the tradition of a Bond girl. A later encounter with Gemma Arterton as a British agent in Bolivia does however briefly recall the heyday of Goldfinger. Judi Dench has taken the perfunctory role of M and turned it into a full-blown supporting role. Her dry wit and take-no-prisoners attitude is welcomed every time she shows up on screen. French star Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) doesn’t really pull off his villainous alter-ego ecologist while Jeffrey Wright is pretty much wasted as U.S. agent Felix Leiter. At least Giancarlo Giannini returns for some nice moments with his Craig. Although they usually leave the challenging job of steering the Bond ship to an English director oddly this time the baton was handed to Marc Forster known more for his intimate dramas such as Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball. His grip on the action sequences is secure but he never really seems to have a handle on what distinguishes this legendary movie spy from everyone else. There’s a reason Bond has survived as a screen icon for almost half a century but the sort of workman-like filmmaking Forster displays here does not represent 007’s finest hour. It’s almost like the producers had a checklist: car chase on winding roads; boat chase; airplane chase; rooftop chase -- all check. Quantum of Solace is definitely worth checking out however. I mean it IS Bond and we wait for these movies on bated breath. Just maybe next time a little less Bourne please.