'First Class' entertainment
"X-Men! Welcome ... to die!"
It's a hilarious line lost in translation from the classic "X-Men" arcade game, and it probably sounded a lot better in its original Japanese.
But it's memorable in an ironic, laughable sort of way, kind of like the last couple of "X-Men" movies.
In "X-Men: First Class," director Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass") doesn't even give them time of day, tossing those dismal sequels ("The Last Stand," "Wolverine") out with yesterday's Shadowcat litter.
Instead, he makes a prequel that stands firmly - and superbly - on its own. Rich in atmosphere and character, stylishly directed and compelling from the get-go, "First Class" is pure summer fun.
Weaving history with the comic books' mutant lore, "First Class" is a science-fiction adventure that spans the decades and the world over, revisiting familiar characters in a new light, while introducing others.
Set predominantly in the 1960s, amid the Cuban missile crisis, the film has a distinct '60s feel to it - and not just in set and costume design. Vaughn and company frame their scenes with such finesse that "First Class" almost plays like a product of the era, only with modern (and noteworthy) special effects and performers.
We're reintroduced to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, "Wanted"), aka Professor X, and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender, "Inglourious Basterds"), aka Magneto, two people with rather unique abilities. Both are mutants, having naturally developed superhuman skills at a young age.
Whereas Xavier, a telepath, led an affluently privileged life in upstate New York, Erik, who can manipulate and control all things metal, was torn away from his parents in World War II-era Poland.
Decades later, the two are using their powers for drastically different reasons. While Xavier uses his telepathy to study mutation and offer refuge to other mutants, Erik uses his to exact revenge on the surviving Nazis who murdered his family, with one target in particular - Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, "Tremors").
Shaw, however, is also a mutant, with the ability to absorb energy and release it with devastating results. Of the opinion that mutant-kind will never be accepted by "normal" people, he's now determined to usher in an era solely for mutants, and he's willing to strong-arm and extort government officials to get it - in both the United States and Russia. Unfortunately for the world, it involves nuclear annihilation, making the Cold War a perfect opportunity.
Xavier and Erik share a common goal - stopping Shaw - but for entirely different reasons. And Shaw has some particularly powerful followers, including telepath Emma Frost (January Jones, "Unknown") and teleporter Azazel (Jason Flemyng, "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels"), leading Xavier and Erik to start recruiting on their own.
With the help of shape-shifter Raven, aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, "Winter's Bone), and the nimble and rather brilliant Hank McCoy, aka Beast (Nicholas Hoult, "About a Boy"), the duo recruits a team of likeminded mutants who could turn the tide in favor of peace. But first they'll need to be trained.
"First Class" features similar themes from the first couple films, namely acceptance and tolerance versus pride and prejudice, making the '60s setting an ideal backdrop. And despite scenes of hairy blue creatures flying airplanes, for instance, it remains surprisingly well-grounded, presenting its alternate reality in a matter-of-fact sort of way - more of a straight-up adventure than a comic-book movie.
All the same, fans of the series will enjoy seeing old favorites, while also welcoming new faces to the series, including Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones, "The Last Exorcism"), Havok (Lucas Till, "Battle: Los Angeles") and Angel (Zoe Kravitz, "It's Kind of a Funny Story"). There's also a cameo that's almost worth admission price alone.
The lead performances are first-class. McAvoy, Fassbender and Bacon shine above the rest, with the first two wisely choosing not to emulate their predecessors' performances (those of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, respectively). Rather, they make the roles their own, while remaining true to the spirit of their characters.
It's a spirit that was lost in the last two films, and one that's mutated into a new beginning for an ailing franchise. Here's hoping for a seat in "Second Class."
"X-Men: First Class," rated PG-13 for brief strong language, some sexuality and a violent image, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, see page 12-B or visit http://www.mountaintimes.com/movies.