X-Men: First Class
An actor who is in dire financial straits, whether because of divorce or other negligence, often results in some rather interesting choices with regards to which roles they accept. Ben Kingsley appeared as villains in both the big screen version of Thunderbirds and in Uwe Boll’s Bloodrayne and why Nicolas Cage has found himself pounding the big budget exploitation pavement of Season of the Witch, Drive Angry, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Similarly, Kevin Bacon (and his wife Kyra Sedgwick), were victims of Bernie Madoff, and Bacon was forced to take as many commercials, films, and other types of lucrative mass media. You can hear Bacon as the narrator in a rather large number of new national ad campaigns (for cars, clothes, electronic equipment, etc.) and you can currently find him as the lead in a Thai direct-to-video action film, Elephant White, made by the director of Ong Bak.
That’s why Bacon’s early appearance as a Nazi doctor in Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, speaking in German, and not just a word here and there, an entire scene, is so amusing. I didn’t know at the time that Bacon was going to be the main adversary of the film, and I thought he might have been so desperate as to take a role in a big-budget film that he was willing to learn to speak German to do it. After all, Mike Myers did a minor, totally unrecognizable non-comedic role in Inglourious Basterds, what’s to stop other name actors from playacting in a WWII film?
As for the film itself, despite having seen X-Men 1-3, I admit to being in the dark about the various comic-book origins of the characters, so I went into First Class completely blind as to what would be required of the filmmakers. In a sense, I was at an advantage, because though there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the way Vaughn handles the film, I didn’t come in with any specific knowledge or expectation. Well, that’s not entirely true, since I did know some of the names of the characters, or what their superhero names were, and so when those “explanations” arrived, they clunked as they would to anyone else (“Professor X? I like the sound of that!”) who had cursory knowledge of the franchise. When Vaughn resorts to such irritating and obvious measures his movie, just like the very similar scenes in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek origins film, or even something less canonical like Shakespeare in Love, where the titular character comes up with most famous phrases in the dopiest, groan-worthy ways possible, First Class is stale and generic. When Vaughn tries to be a bit ambitious or tweak (a brief cameo from Wolverine is easily the humorous highlight of the film*) his marching orders, the film excels.
I don’t know if the finale that takes place on a beach as the US and the USSR are on the brink of WWIII (did you know that the real culprit for the PR nightmare that was the Bay of Pigs, had nothing to do with Russia or America but was actually caused by an megalomaniac with telepathy?) came straight from the comic-book, but the last ½ hour of First Class, after 100 minutes of hyperventilating cross-cutting and “meanwhile back at…” scenes, is where the film excels. The CGI, which to that point had been rather pedestrian, really shines, especially as submarines become airborne. As usual in a comic book movie, the characters are little more than chess pieces, uttering perfunctory expository dialogue (and in the case of X-Men, parables about race and sexuality) until the next action beat approaches. Alliances change throughout the film but without particularly convincing speeches that supposedly make the difference. These characters have to be in a certain place by the closing credits, and Vaughn doesn’t really seem to care how the minor players get there. Vaughn still runs into the problem that hangs over every one of the X-Men films; that some of the powers that the Mutants have would be so overwhelming that there would be no way to beat them, maybe you could earn a draw. Other powers are so comparatively wimpy, that it might have been a better idea for Professor X/Charles (James McAvoy) and Magneto/Erik (Michael Fassbender) to suspend their Mutant Recruit and just pay for plane tickets home for some of the meeker types. How exactly are a stripper with wings and a guy with big feet** who can run fast going to compete with shape-shifting, mind-control, weather control, or energy control?
It’s only when the darker aspects of the film emerge that a lot of that side nonsense becomes irrelevant (yes, Riptide, the mutant who can blow wind around does look like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction), though there’s not quite enough development of the rivalry between Magneto and Professor X, at least not on a Darth Vader level. It’s also a shame that the horn aplenty of character actors hired (always the best diversion in a rigid formula film), such as Oliver Platt, Ray Wise, James Remar, Michael Ironside, and Rade Serbedzija don’t have anything to do or say. Appearances by those actors are a nice respite from the Canonical drudgery, and wasting them is worse than not casting them at all. Not that that’s Vaughn’s fault, he wasn’t hired to entertain us, but rather set up various forks in the road for potential spin-offs and sequels, and it’s a miracle that First Class is as moderately entertaining as it is.
In terms of mediocrity, that’s quite a rave.
* One other highlight comes right at the beginning; where executive producer Bryan Singer (who directed X-Men and X-Men II) has a new version of his Bad Hat Harry production logo appear. A clever nod to his breakthrough hit The Usual Suspects should amuse older audiences bound to spend the next 130 minutes on the verge of a nap.
A subtle moment that may not have been intentionally humorous comes later, when the all-powerful Kevin Bacon, spiffily dressed and encased in a recently furnished boat, has paintings behind him, hanging on his wall, that are unbelievably cheap-looking. One has a Native American smiling at the viewer, with the paint smudged like a 3rd grader learning Paint-By-Numbers. And there are others of similar quality that aren’t quite in focus. All I can say about them? Classy.
** One of the odder choices was to hide this scientist character behind nerd glasses and a shy personality, as if he were simply contact lenses and a ponytail away from being a stud.