Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult
It's been over a decade since we saw a small boy get separated from his mum at a Nazi concentration camp in 1944 and twist the metal gates apart out of good old, healthy rage. Now we're revisiting that cheerful moment, shot for shot. It's a bold move for a prequel to Bryan Singer's X-Men movies, but X-Men: First Class is certainly bold. And cool to boot.
As soon as young Erik (Bill Milner) discovers his metal-bending powers, Nazi Kevin Bacon appears. Tormented by Bacon into honing his powers, Erik grows up into an angry, sexy man (Fassbender) hell bent on revenge. Angry, sexy revenge.
A quick jump across to 1960s Oxford and we meet the charming Charles Xavier (McAvoy), a mind-reader who mostly uses his gift in bars. On girls. Groovy. Accompanied by his adopted shape-shifting sister, Raven (Lawrence), the genetics genius is approached by the CIA's Moira McTaggert (Byrne) when she comes across some nasty mutants plotting to heat up the Cold War.
There's demon teleporter Azazel (Flemyng), cold-as-ice Emma Frost (Jones), and portable wind generator Riptide. Their ringleader? Evil 1960s Kevin Bacon. Now going by the name Sebastian Shaw, he's a man who rocks hipster sideburns even harder than his old Nazi uniform.
While Bacon goes all Bond villain planning WWIII on his nuclear submarine, Charles and Erik cross paths, teaming up to recruit an army of young mutants. Trained up by the budding academic, these insecure kids form the beginning of Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters. And they're all fantastic.
It speaks volumes for Jane Goldman's script that First Class introduces so many fresh faces but echoes the ensemble balance that defined Singer's X-Men movies. Their powers compliment each other, building subtle cast bonds and driving top-notch action sequences.
And boy, does Vaughn know how to shoot action. Supported by some excellent CGI, his mutant showdowns are thrilling stuff, given a dynamic sheen by the chic production design. Even the formulaic training montage in the middle has an unabashed 60s vibe thanks to the stylish editing - the likes of which haven't been seen since Ang Lee's Hulk.
From sleazy nightclubs to the proverbial War Room, Vaughn nails the period setting, right down to the skimpy female clothing (at one point, Rose Byrne has to strip off just to blend in). He uses the Cuban Missile Crisis to give events an urgent political tension, which plays off against Charles and Erik's uneasy truce.
Building up to an exhilarating beach finale, the future Professor X and Magneto get just enough time to establish the central moral debate of the series without skimping on the entertainment. McAvoy's Professor is easygoing and amusing, while Fassbender gives a landmine of a performance that screams 007 at anybody watching - even when his accent slips.
There are the odd clunky lines of dialogue (and the inevitable "I can't feel my legs!" moment) but Goldman's on-rails script fits the predetermined story into an epic 140-minute runtime. Some of the sidekicks are superfluous (January Jones is there solely for lingerie purposes) but other characters are so well-rounded that you're always engaged. Mystique, in particular, almost steals the show from Charles and Erik. Not least because she spends most of her time pretending to look like Jennifer Lawrence.
A charismatic cast? Globe-trotting adventure? Matthew Vaughn's prequel is a superb summer blockbuster. But it's the intelligent writing that really makes X-Men: First Class top-notch stuff. It's big, it's bold and it's effortlessly cool.
First Class? X-Men: Kick-Ass, more like.
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