X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (Dir. Matthew Vaughn, 2011)
Right off the bat it's clear that Matthew Vaughn is a much better fit for the X-MEN movies than the previous directors (Brett Radner and Gavin Hood respectively). A strong opening sequence set in a concentration camp in Poland in 1944 shows Vaughn getting the edgy tense tone right in introducing a captured kid (Bill Milner) who has untrained telekinetic powers.
A sinister Kevin Bacon plays German Scientist Sebastian Shaw who recognizes the powers the boy has, and kills his mother (Éva Magyar) in an successful attempt to unleash them. Meanwhile, a young boy (Laurence Belcher) encounters a young girl (Morgan Lily) who's broken into his Westchester County, NY mansion's kitchen. She can morph her form into anybody's with her true body being all blue and spiky, while he can read people's minds.
They live together as brother and sister, growing up into James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence as the movie shifts to 1962. After witnessing supernatural activity in Las Vegas involving a never aging dapper Bacon and his crystalized co-hort Emma Frost (January Jones), CIA Agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) seeks out McAvoy, because of his expertise on mutation.
So the mutants hook up with the CIA (who take a little convincing), and are stationed in a facility to train under the supervision of Oliver Platt who's never given a character name. The concentration camp kid, now grown up into Michael Fassbender, tracks down Bacon to his yacht at the same time McAvoy does, but Bacon escapes in a souped up submarine.
There's an amusing recruitment montage with McAvoy and Fassbender rounding up other mutants which is slickly cut with '60s style and a Burt Bacharach-esque bounce to the soundtrack.
A sizable stable of characters is assembled including Nicholas Hoult, Álex González, Caleb Landry Jones, Zoë Isabella Kravitz, and Jason Flemyng, with the film juggling them capably. The film's second half concerns the crew confronting the Cuban missile crisis with Bacon's sinister Shaw, who's a mutant himself, being the one responsible for the missiles' transportation from Russia.
Like in all these comic book epics, the climax is an overblown battle. It's an explosive spectacle with battleships filling the sky full of warheads.
Oddly, it feels like the influential touchstones of this movie are the STAR TREK reboot, and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS; it's an origin story intertwined with an alternate history scenario, and I was surprised at how much of it worked.
X-MEN: FIRST CLASS is a better than average summer sequel (actually prequel) that despite being cluttered with clichés, cheesy moments, and bad dialogue (Bacon even says "come with me, and you'll live like Kings...and Queens" at one point) offers a fair amount of fun.
The CGI is consistently top notch, as is the set design (I loved the complete replica of the War Room from DR. STRANGELOVE), and there's a satisfying sweep to the storyline.
Particularly in the passion of Fassbender's performance, the confidence of McAvoy, the angsty energy of Laurence, and Bacon having a ball with his Bondian villain of a role, it's an incredibly effective cast.
On the minus side, some of Hoult's mannerisms as Laurence's possible love interest are annoying and his origin as "Beast" is undercooked, the young recruits are obnoxious, and January Jones never seems to be all there, but as she's clad in white lingerie when she's not crystalized, she obviously wasn't hired for her acting ability.
Regardless this breathes fresh air into the franchise, especially after the lackluster X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE.
With this classy and exceedingly entertaining effort, consider the series rebooted.