Okay, I’m pushing it a bit trying to shoehorn this one into Shots on the Blog. But what the hell, it’s got a CIA department doing covert things. And, uh, there’s more than a shade of Matt Helm to it. And, uh … all right, it’s more a spy movie than a crime movie but, as Lesley Gore almost put it, it’s my blog and I’ll review if want to. Anyway, here’s a picture of January Jones:
Now, where was I? Oh yes. ‘X Men: First Class’, Matthew Vaughan’s piss-take/prequel/showreel for the Broccolis [delete as applicable]. Things kick off with the prologue to Bryan Singer’s original ‘X Men’: the young Erik Lehnsherr being pried away from his mother by Nazi guards in 1944 and responding with a metal-bending display of power until a rifle butt to the head knocks him out. Next we’re in some Ivy League part of America where the privileged young Charles Xavier meets the young Raven. They’re all kids, and they all realize they’re not exactly normal. But whereas Xavier subjugates his power (or, as he calls it, mutation) and impresses on Raven to do the same, Lehnsherr doesn’t have the same luxury. He’s delivered into the hands of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who quickly discovers that the key to unleashing Lehnsherr’s power is his anger. He discovers this by shooting Lehnsherr’s mother.
The juxtaposition of Xavier and Lehnsherr’s formative years continues apace as Xavier (James McAvoy), now in his twenties and a graduate of Oxford (or “Oxford University, England” as the establishing credit trumpets)*, is jarred from his enjoyment of the academic life by CIA agent Moira McTaggart** (Rose Byrne) who recruits him into an unofficial intelligence branch headed up by The Man in the Black Suit (Oliver Platt); while Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbinder) – all growed up and pretty freakin’ mean with it – is on a globe-trotting mission of revenge against Shaw.
Meanwhile, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) is all growed up and so damned cute with it there ought to be a law against it. Exhibit A, m’lud:
Um, sorry. Lost my train of thought again. Oh yes. Vaughan explicitly establishes that it’s now 1962, through more of those idiot-proof establishing credits and enough stock footage of John F Kennedy that the family’s lawyer is probably writing to Vaughan and co. right now to ask what their percentage point is of the box office gross. The Cold War is heating up (sorry: that was poor, even by my standards) and the world’s attention is focused on Cuba. Shaw is intent on playing the superpowers off against each other and here’s where the whole ‘X Men First Class’-as-Bond-movie thing really kicks in.
After all, we have an egomaniacal supervillain (Bacon’s performance suggests he’s channelled a big fat helping of Blofeld), his sexy but deadly right-hand-woman Emma Frost (January Jones), their entourage of seemingly invicible goons, a globe-trotting narrative, a loose-cannon operative (if Craig hangs up the mantle any time in the near future, Michael Fassbinder should immediately be signed up as the next 007), entire swathes of funky 60s décor, a magnificently unPC attitude to female characters (Rose Byrne’s intro has her sashaying around a go-go bar in her underwear; January Jones’s cleavage puts the fucking missiles to shame; and Jennifer Lawrence exists in an entirely different universe and time zone from the ugly stick), and more gadgets than Q Department could shake a standard issue stick with modifications at (allowing, of course, for the fact that the mutants are pretty much gadgets in their own right). Add to this Shaw’s labyrinthine inner sanctum, a pleasure cruiser whose hull turns into a submarine and various narrative beats that recall at least four different Bond titles and the evidence is nigh on incontrovertible.
There’s also a touch of the ‘Dr Strangelove’ in the politicking and the pseudo-tense council-of-war scenes. There were whole tranches of the movies where I was praying for someone to pop and say, aghast, “Gentlemen, you can’t mutate in here. This is the war room.”
Vaughan’s directorial approach vacillates quite wildly between moody, broody, angsty stuff (the young Lehnsherr suffering at Shaw’s hands), straight down the line action thriller business (Lehnsherr’s pursuit of same) and camp, OTT set-pieces (remember that advert, I think it was for vodka, when all the rammel on the seabed rises up, breaks the surface and erupts into the air? get ready for a re-edited version of same as part of the big finale). It shouldn’t work. It should be piss-awful. But somehow it’s supremely entertaining. Of course, it arrives in the wake of the wrist-cuttingly awful ‘X Men 3: the Last
Snore Stand’ which gives it a certain advantage. After ‘X Men 3’, an episode of ‘Postman Pat’ where his black-and-white cat mutated into a slightly bigger cat and they went and delivered some letters would be a hundredfold improvement!
‘X Men First Class’ is a real curate’s egg of a movie. Plot holes abound, not least when Xavier does something during the aforementioned big finale that leaves you wondering why he doesn’t pull the same trick on two other specific people and – hey presto – problem solved. And yet there performances are generally effective, with only – surprisingly – McAvoy struggling to suggest Patrick Stewart’s Xavier. Fassbinder, however, captures every bit of Ian McKellan’s ruthless charm and steely intelligence as Magneto, while Lawrence nails the character arc that transforms Raven into Mystique.
Yup, it’s a weird ’un all right. But it’s the best ‘Dr Strangelove’-meets-James-Bond mash-up you’re likely to see this summer.
*Establishing credits are plentiful and bludgeoningly over-explanatory in this movie. Every couple of minutes, it’s reinforced to us poor geographically-challenged idiots in the audience that we’re in “Oxford, England”, or “CIA headquarters, USA” or “Moscow, Russia”, the latter particularly redundant given the proliferation of mushroom-domed buildings in every Moscow-set backdrop.
**Which is about as subtle as implying a character has Australian heritage by calling her Sheila.