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Talkin' Bout a Revolution

 

V for Vendetta

James McTeigue, Germany/U.K., 2006

Rating: 3.6

 

Posted: March 19, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

V for Vendetta, the first film from the Wachowski Brothers camp since the Matrix films, shares more than a few elements in common with that science-fiction trilogy. Yes, it's suitably dark and dystopian, set in a shadowy world of oppression, with a black-clad Hugo Weaving occasionally spouting dramatic-sounding dialogue with a stage actor's gusto. More significantly, though, like the Matrix trilogy, it kicks off with a plate of promising ideas and themes, only to eventually allow those stabs at substance to succumb to its noir-drenched style.

To wit: This (very loose) adaptation of the comic miniseries by Alan Moore (whose name is nowhere to be found in the credits) and David Lloyd takes place in the near future (2020, instead of 1997), in a London that has settled a little too easily into a totalitarian regime straight out of 1984. A bloviating Bill O'Reilly-type broadcaster (updated from the comic's "Voice of Fate" radio announcer) clues us in that America is no longer a superpower, plagued, like the rest of the world, by a civil unrest that Britain has eluded by virtue of its chancellor (John Hurt), a menacing ferret of a dictator with yellowed teeth and a vaguely Hitlerian countenance.

But just as Morpheus and his leather-bedecked renegades set out to oppose the subjugating machinery of the Matrix, this story has its own rebel: V (Weaving), a Shakespeare-quoting rabble-rouser in an expressionless Guy Fawkes mask. V, who's as adept with swords and knives as he is with bombs, clearly sees himself as a spiritual descendent of that 17th-century revolutionary famed for a failed plot to blow up Parliament (as well as Edmund Dantes, the protagonist of The Count of Monte Cristo).

But V more closely resembles a futuristic descendent of Batman, or, closer to the mark, Zorro, tackling his targets -- the Fingermen, Britain's secret police, as well as key societal figures somehow connected to a long-ago crime against him -- with a zesty, Errol Flynn air. V doesn't revel in the darkness as other night-born avengers do; he delights in the colorful vestiges of the world he once knew, as evidenced by his Shadow Gallery, a sprawling hideout decorated with movie posters, filled with books and furnished with a vintage jukebox.

V's mask is meant to prohibit us from connecting or identifying too closely with this "terrorist" whose twin aims are revenge against those who wronged him and the destruction of this fascist empire. But he's still much more expressive than the film's nominal protagonist, Evey, who as played by Natalie Portman is a pretty young woman with sad and imploring eyes who nonetheless remains more of a cipher than her mentor. Once V rescues Evey from some malicious Fingermen, he lets her (and therefore us) into his world, gently speechifying about how buildings are symbols and that "governments should be afraid of their people." This daughter of long-dead resistance fighters is soon suspected of being V's henchman by hangdog police inspector Finch (Stephen Rea), who slowly uncovers clues to V's origins and his ties to those he's targeted for individual attention.

It's all very intriguing, for a while, even when the deliberate references to our post-9/11 world (the constant branding of V as a "terrorist," the destruction of government buildings, a final set piece involving the Underground train system) get a little heavy-handed. But in true Wachowski form, soon enough the delicate balance between action and atmosphere is critically lost, a situation compounded by the lack of a clear or believable emotional arc for our two main characters. V never rises above his thirst for vengeance, of which his desire to topple the dictatorship seems a mere outgrowth. And even after a startling sequence that shows how far V is willing to go in the name of his war, Evey eventually surrenders to Stockholm syndrome, mistaking her belief in V's goals for love.

The last two Matrix films overdosed on standard-issue action-movie pyrotechnics at the expense of the interesting social and philosophical issues raised in the first film. V for Vendetta, directed by longtime Wachowski assistant director James McTeigue from a script by the brothers (who also produced), doesn't suffer from that problem -- if anything, it could stand a bit more action; there's a whole stretch where Finch's plodding investigation into V's past is the most vibrant part of the film.

Nor, however, does it ever fully dig into the meaty questions it raises: Where is the thin line between righteous freedom fighter and despised terrorist? When do the ends justify the means? V for Vendetta pulls things together enough at the end so that audiences leave the theater feeling satisfied, but not truly engaged. One can see why Moore (whose comic had its share of dull patches, as well, to be fair) wanted nothing to do with it. For a movie about a terrorist, exploding monuments and a political climate of rule through fear, it oddly fails to ignite any real sparks.

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