X-Men: First Class (2011)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 5/31/14
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Music: Henry Jackman
Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, Nicholas Hoult, January Jones, Zoe Kravitz, cameos by Michael Ironside, Hugh Jackson, Rebecca Romijn

This "X-Men" prequel takes place in the early 1960s and follows the paths of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) as young men, fighting against a common mutant enemy named Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Shaw is the megalomaniac champion of mutantkind that Magneto will later become, and he orchestrates the Cuban Missile Crisis as a means to wipe out all of Mankind so that he can take over. CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (sexy Rose Byrne) figures this out, and assembles her own mutant task force to deal with the threat. The team consists of Xavier, Lensherr, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Angel (Zoe Kravitz), Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), and several other young mutants. Shaw has a few nasty mutants on his side, including sexy Emma Frost (January Jones) as his second-in-command. Naturally, the good mutants end up saving the day and preventing World War III, only to be targeted by the Americans and Russians as a new common threat. This is the final wedge that drives Xavier and Lensherr apart and begins their lifelong feud of differing ideals.

It's a moderately entertaining romp, but it falls short of the previous films in terms of action and spectacle. Thankfully, it's buoyed up by a strong cast and a fabulous performance by Michael Fassbender. Since the X-Men don't exist yet, a lot of time is spent finding and training young mutants, which quickly becomes tiresome. Jennifer Lawrence handles the role of Raven quite nicely, and her turbulent emotions and toxic feminine charms create tangible tension throughout the entire team. January Jones makes an excellent villain, and imbues Emma Frost with a suitably cold and bitchy personality. Her provocative wardrobe is just icing on the cake, and she offers up some of the film's best eye candy. Unfortunately, her makeup is just a little too extreme, which tends to betray the time period and diminish her appeal. Competing with Ms. Jones in the lingerie category is Rose Byrne, whose outrageously ridiculous and appallingly gratuitous nightclub scene is arguably the highlight of the film. She's fiercely sexy and handles all of her scenes with grace, poise, and single-minded determination. Her pursed lips, clenched jaw, glaring eyes, and exquisitely furrowed brow defiantly convey her fears, frustrations, and fierce sense of dedication to her job. She's simply wonderful to watch, and her presence is intoxicating throughout. Hugh Jackman also makes a welcomed and extremely amusing cameo as a grumpy Logan.

It's definitely a first rate production, but a lot of the visual effects are disappointingly unconvincing. Especially the digital water effects, which are always difficult to get right. Some of Raven's transformation scenes also look overly flat. Apart from that, the film looks good and has a excellent music score. X-Men fans and comic book nerds should be pleased.