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MOVIE REVIEW: Acting top notch in latest installment of 'X-Men'

From left, Michael Fassbender, Caleb Landry Jones, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence and Lucas Till star in "X-Men: First Class."

From left, Michael Fassbender, Caleb Landry Jones, James McAvoy, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence and Lucas Till star in "X-Men: First Class."

X-Men: First Class (PG-13)

4 stars out of 4

We're a month into the summer movie season, and so far Hollywood is 0-for-4 with its high-profile sequels. If not outright lousy ("Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Fast Five"), they're recycled and unimaginative ("Kung Fu Panda 2," "The Hangover Part II").

While sometimes as bad as sequels, most prequels are generally far more interesting and offer filmmakers a chance to dig deep into backstory and deliver something new with an established and often tired brand. The recent "Star Trek" reboot and the early 20th-century portion of "The Godfather Part II" are two excellent examples which took full advantage of the plethora of golden opportunities afforded to but rarely employed by prequels. You can now add "X-Men: First Class" to that very short and elite list.

It would be impossible to accurately present the origins of all of the major "X-Men" characters in one movie, a point not lost on director Matthew Vaughn and his three co-writers. They wisely chose to include only four (not counting a few brilliantly executed cameos) characters that were seen in previous "X-Men" features, introduce half a dozen new ones and not all of them are around at the end of the movie.

In no way a slam against what has come before, but Vaughn and co-producer Bryan Singer have populated this installment with some heavy-hitting, highly respected actors and everyone brings their "A" game. Make no mistake, this is a sci-fi adventure movie based on a comic book, but so were "Iron Man" and "Thor." Story and performance never take a back seat to the special effects (which are also phenomenal). The aptly titled "First Class" is a superbly acted film and will elevate every one of its performers to new career heights.

Even though it is a fictional fantasy, "First Class" takes a high stakes and nervy gamble by weaving itself into not one but two deathly serious true events. Opening with the Holocaust and ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis, it rewrites history yet does so in a highly plausible (for a sci-fi movie) manner. Remember what Quentin Tarantino did with Adolf Hitler at the end of "Inglourious Basterds?" That's kind of what Vaughn and company do here. Remove the sci-fi trappings and "First Class" could very easily be a Cold War-era James Bond flick.

Vaughn and Singer must have both seen "Inglourious Basterds" and recognized that Michael Fassbender would make an ideal younger version of Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, played previously by Ian McKellen. Lantern-jawed and possessing a kind of nuanced, steely insolence that's hard to pull off convincingly, Fassbender never overreaches or twirls a metaphoric evil moustache but also makes it clear his Magneto is never going to be a true team player.

Matching Fassbender note for note yet in a distinctly different key is James McAvoy as Charles Xavier/Professor X. The character was portrayed originally by Patrick Stewart and while McAvoy still infuses a fair amount of Stewart's more reserved tones, he too makes this role his own by lending it large amounts of flip humor and glib confidence. McAvoy would be a perfect choice to play the next Bond.

Arguably the most interesting and complex character in the film is handled magnificently by recent Oscar-nominee ("Winter's Bone") Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique. Showing up previously and more or less as a sexual fantasy prop rendered by Rebecca Romijn, Mystique's presence in the first "X-Men" trilogy was incidental at best. But in Lawrence's hands Mystique is a conflicted symbol of female empowerment with major internal emotional issues. She must deal with her physical being while juggling no less than three possible love interests.

Contrary to early reports, Magneto is not the villain here; it's Kevin Bacon as Sebastian Shaw, and folks he is one truly sick and twisted little puppy. Starting out as a Nazi, Shaw grows only more loathsome and hateful as the film progresses. Bacon's performance ranks alongside that of Heath Ledger's in "The Dark Knight" as the finest cinematic antagonists of the 21st century.

This movie has everything -- drama, comedy, horror, suspense, romance, action, you name it -- and all of it is top-shelf. If you really love movies and choose to skip it, you'll be making a monumental mistake. (Fox)