Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Oliver Platt, Álex González, Jason Flemyng, ZoĎ Kravitz, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi, Lucas Till, Demetri Goritsas, Glenn Morshower, Matt Craven, James Remar, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise, Michael Ironside, Bill Milner, Morgan Lily, Laurence Belcher, Hugh Jackman
Written by: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, based on a story by Sheldon Turner, Bryan Singer
Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language
Running Time: 132
Date: 05/25/2011
IMDB

X-Men: First Class (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hits and Missiles

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm not sure if this fifth X-Men movie officially qualifies as a "reboot," but it sure injects some life back into a series that fumbled its third and fourth entries. Comic book fan Bryan Singer turned in a solid first entry, X-Men (2000), and an outstanding second entry, X2: X-Men United (2003), but then moneymaking hack Brett Ratner took over for the third movie, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), and all but killed it. Then, an even worse idea: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), directed by the severely overrated Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Gavin Hood.

At last the X-Men are back, and though it's another origin story, director Matthew Vaughn injects some style, speed, clarity and enthusiasm back into the series. This is the best kind of summer movie: it has something to say about the state of the world, but that message is hidden inside some exciting sequences and terrific action.

The story takes place all over the world, but begins in Poland in 1944, where we're reminded once again that Erik Lehnsherr -- the future Magneto -- once resided in the Nazi prison camps. The evil Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) performs terrible tests on the young mutant, trying to develop his magnetic powers; this leaves Erik with a powerful thirst for revenge. Years later, in the early 1960s, Erik (Michael Fassbender) prepares to find and murder his old teacher.

On the other side of the world, young Charles Xavier discovers a shape-shifting mutant, Raven, in his kitchen and invites her to live with him. Years later, Charles (James McAvoy) finishes his thesis and Raven has grown into the beautiful Jennifer Lawrence, although that look is only a facade; she's really blue and scaly.

Then, while following a secret organization of world leaders, a CIA agent, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) gets a whiff of Shaw's latest plans, and discovers his use of mutants therein. They are Emma Frost (January Jones), Azazel (Jason Flemyng), and Riptide (Alex Gonzalez).

Moira enlists Xavier's aid, and after a complex series of incidents, Xavier and Erik wind up becoming best friends, and joining a CIA-run organization of mutants. Together, they track down and gather up more mutants, including Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), Darwin (Edi Gathegi), and Havok (Lucas Till). Raven joins them with her new codename Mystique. Erik and Xavier get new names, too: Magneto and Professor X.

Whew. All this leads up to a showdown in Cuba, circa 1962, if you know what I mean. But in the meantime, characters wrestle with the age-old problem of whether to be an individual (no matter what the cost), or try to fit in with the rest of society. There's also the question of finding the point between our animal side and our civilized side, as well as the small question of whether it's OK to give up liberty for safety. The first two questions, at least, are the ones that make Marvel Comics so popular; these heroes wrestle with somewhat the same problems that most everyday teens face.

Of course, the real selling point is the action. Vaughn, who began as a producer for Guy Ritchie's films and now, after Layer Cake (2005), Stardust (2007), and Kick-Ass (2010), has turned into a top Hollywood director-for-hire, up there with Jon Favreau. Like Favreau, he brings a genuine freshness to his films; they move quickly and cleanly, and with a kind of enthusiastic pride. Vaughn always establishes his action sequences within a particular setting, and uses the space well; he also includes the all-important emotional element to each. We always know what's at stake, whether it's the memory of Erik's mother, or Raven's unrequited crush on Xavier. Each emotional problem is expressed in terms of visual action.

Vaughn juggles the myriad of characters, subplots, messages and timelines admirably, though if he were given a slightly smaller canvas, I imagine he could truly excel. Meanwhile, in regards to X-Men: First Class, my guess is that you won't get a better superhero movie this summer.

The summer superhero movies have all come and gone, and this one remains my favorite. Fox released a gorgeous Blu-Ray with sparkling picture and sound. It comes with an isolated music score, lots of featurettes and documentaries, and deleted/extended scenes. It also has a "mutant tracker" and other extras that require an internet connection. A second disc includes a digital copy.

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