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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Movie Review: 'X-Men: First Class'

By Don M. Ventura

When I refer to myself as “not an X-Men fan” I mean no disrespect to the mutant-centric comic books. I only mean that, while I have a reverence for many of the characters and teams, I must admit to having a difficult time recounting the rich history of the characters and intricate plotlines.

However I have found the Bryan Singer-helmed X-Men films to be extremely special adaptations that are faithful to the spirit of the source material. And this is key to all comic book films. Attempting to slavishly adapt storylines (Daredevil) or appease fanboys by sprinkling famous characters and elements from beloved runs (X-Men: Last Stand) can cause a crinkle in a comic book movie. X-Men: First Class suffers from the latter, though not nearly as sloppily as Last Stand.

If I were to put it simply, I’d say the film left me cold. By the time the end-credits appeared I found that I cared little for the characters and the world they inhabited for the past two hours. But I won’t blame the cast, not wholly at least, who are often quite superb here. Specifically, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult and Jennifer Lawrence—these four lift the sullen script higher than its overstuffed story. They bring charm and sincerity to just about all of their scenes. But the script remains lifeless, and the fine actors at its core are unable to salvage the film.

X-Men: First Class is a story that recounts the rise and fall of the friendship between Charles Xavier (McAvoy) and Eric Lehnsherr (Fassbender). The film also covers the rise and rift of the mutant community against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis. McAvoy and Fassbender bring the charisma necessary to accurately play these two roles—it is clear why armies of mutants would be compelled to follow these bigger than life characters. Especially McAvoy as Xavier, who has been portrayed as a sexless fuddy-duddy in the previous X-Men movie outings by Patrick Stewart.

Jones and Bacon fail to capture the
charisma of their heroic counterparts.
Fassbender gets excellent scenes as he searches across continents to find the Nazi who murdered his mother before his eyes as a child. Whether painfully extracting a filling from an aging Nazi, executing former SS soldiers in an Argentinian bar, or storming a Cuban stronghold, Fassbender remains sympathetic as the determined villain-in the-making.

Unfortunately the energy of the film’s first twenty or so minutes cannot be sustained as we are introduced to a parade of new mutants, some who delight and many whose flatness brings the films faults to light. While Rose Byrne (as Moira MacTaggert) enjoys a fun and campy scene in which she infiltrates the infamous Hellfire Club in here sexy underwear, the actress ultimately disappears into the background with little do.

Director Matthew Vaughn has worked some of his magic to bring the required excitement to the film that’s for sure. Perhaps the most successful sequence in the film (after the opening scenes) involves Xavier’s opening his Westchester home to the young mutants that he has gathered with Erik; an energetic montage of the youngsters learning how to master their powers follows.

Perhaps the most glaring failure of X-Men: First Class are its villains. Kevin Bacon plays it a bit too straight and dull as the Hellfire Club leader Sebastian Shaw whose goal is to start a nuclear Armageddon—it wasn’t clear why a post-apocalyptic world was an ideal haven for the next generation of humans. January Jones looks gorgeous as Emma Frost, but her performance is flat and her characterization is severely off from what fans of the White Queen would expect.

Hoult and Caleb Landry Jones (as Banshee) are the film’s revelations. Hoult is nervous and uncomfortable in his own skin—his scenes with Lawrence (as Mystique) are particularly touching and teeter on heartbreaking thanks to Hoult’s genuine vulnerability. Though Jones has little to do in terms of acting in this film, he has and eccentric nature that is very appealing. I expect we’ll be seeing much more from these wonderful your actors.

It was during the film’s final act, which sees all of the characters falling into their destined roles, where it occurred to me that I simply did not care how things would pan out for the heroes or villains. By the film’s close I found myself nostalgic for the fun, energy and excitement of the opening scenes of X-Men: First Class.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I really enjoyed the film. As you mentioned, the performances by Xavier and future Magneto were fantastic, and worth the price of admission for me.

Though I agree, Kevin Bacon did a decent job, but I would have preferred a little back story. How does one go from being a Nazi to being in the ears of both the Soviets and the Americans? He didn't show signs of aging, was he really a Nazi in the first place?

January Jones was also lifeless. She is lifeless as Betty Draper on madmen, which I thought was befitting the character. Turns out that is just how she acts (or doesn't).