V for Vendetta (2006)
Legendary comics author Alan Moore has a particular disdain for Hollywood adaptations. They just haven’t gone so well for this scribble scribe. There was 2001’s From Hell (I may be the only one in the world that actually likes it, Heather Graham’s atrocious cockney accent aside) and 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Moore is even responsible for the creation of the John Constantine character, who had his own 2005 big screen venture. I suppose you could see why he has certain contempt for the movie versions of his much-heralded stories. Now comes V for Vendetta, based on Moore’s 1988 comic and adapted into a screenplay by the Wachoswki brothers. While I may have no idea how close V for Vendetta is to Moore’s graphic novel, I can say that the movie is a smart, superb thriller that dares you to think while you?re stuffing popcorn into your mouth.
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot. I see no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot”
In the future, America has lost its super power status after overextending itself in war. Britain has turned into a hostile totalitarian government, led by chancellor Sutler (John Hurt). Evey (Natalie Portman) works for the state-controlled TV station. One night, while walking out past curfew, Evey is attacked by some undercover cops looking for a good time. A mysterious masked man named V (Hugo Weaving) comes to her rescue. His grinning, bearded mask resembles Guy Fawkes, a revolutionary that tried to blow up the British Parliament 400 years ago on November 5th. V starts taking out high profile government figures and then infiltrates the government airwaves, asking others to rise up against the corruption they see around them. He promises to blow up parliament one year to the day of this message. Finch (Stephen Rea, so expressive with his hangdog demeanor) is assigned to find out who this V is and how to deal with him. In reality, Finch discovers a lot more troubling information about his own government. Evey is linked with V and tracked down for interrogation and potential execution. As the date approaches, Evey must battle her own loyalties and strike out against what she feels is right and just.
What makes V for Vendetta so exciting is its playground of ideas. This is a dynamically intelligent, complex movie but it never lets the smarts get in the way of a rousing good time. This is a very political movie that’s very relevant today, like the exchange of freedom for security and the use of fear mongering to serve an agenda. I love that the government’s leaders were a rogue?s gallery of corruptible figures; the Bill O’Riley-like TV pundit blowhard, the church leader who just happens to be a pedophile, the scientist whose good intentions justify the worst in human experimentation. V for Vendetta is a thinking man?s comic book movie, one that actually has actual respect for its audience and refuses to dumb down its message. The movie starts at a gallop and never lets up intellectually, and that’s so wonderfully refreshing from a film of any stripes. While I would not classify myself in the camp that views V for Vendetta as an anti-Bush administration screed, I’d have to say the movie does stir people out of a sense of apathy. I was even moved by the film’s hopeful conclusion, which is more than I can say about any other comic book movie (yes, even Elektra).
Director James McTeigue has previously served as the Wachoswki brothers’ assistant director. V for Vendetta is his debut as a director and what an auspicious debut it is. The movie is visually lush thanks to Aliens cinematographer Adrian Biddle (sadly, he died December 2005), but the smartest notion McTeigue accomplishes is putting story above special effects (ahem, George Lucas?). The command McTeigue has as a first-time director is impressive; how many people would be this restrained with all the fancy tools Hollywood has to offer? It’s his restraint and priorities that allow V for Vendetta to excel. And when the film does call for action, McTeigue judiciously uses visual trickery to enhance the scene. A late scene involving slow-mo V taking out a cadre of soldiers while they reload is amazing both in its “hey, look at this!” visual acuity and that it fits perfectly within the narrative. Nothing is self-consciously showy for the sake of wowing an audience, and every beat of action feels organic to the storyline. V for Vendetta is a terrific debut with some great set pieces.
Weaving is awesome as our hero. Since at no point does V ever take off his mask, it wouldn’t have been unheard of to simply hire a stunt guy to play the part and dub Weaving’s voice in later. But no, Weaving decided to be the part and adds so much to the character. He knows when to turn his head, nod, lean to a side, just like a silent film star interpreting the moment through action; it sounds ridiculous but it definitely helps paint a clearer picture of V. Then there’s Weaving’s incredible voice, making V sound like the world’s craziest, coolest Shakespearean lit professor.
Portman has finally made me appreciate her as an actress. She had a long winter between 1994’s The Professional and her 2004 one-two punch of Garden State and Closer, but I now finally see that Portman is a fine actress and not just a promising talent. She’s the heart of the film, the focal point for the audience to journey along, and she’s excellent at every point. I also give her props for having her head shaved on camera (I can only imagine what the eventual porn version will do with this scene).
I’m left in the cold by this over inflated discussion on how “daring” V for Vendetta is by having the hero of a major Hollywood movie be a terrorist, one that says things like, “Violence can be used for good,” and, “Sometimes blowing up buildings can change the world.” Yeah, sure, but it’s a well-mannered, well-read, cultured terrorist versus a giant evil totalitarian government that kidnaps people, strips them of their rights, and enforces cruelty and prejudice. So exactly how daring is that? Of course audience sympathy is going to fall to the little guy, in this case a terrorist, which is the only hope of shaking things up and righting wrongs in the system. That doesn’t exactly strike me as subversive. This movie isn’t promoting terrorism any more than Munich was when Spielberg allowed the Palestinians to have a voice. The movie is anti-oppression if anything.
My only complaints are minor. The movie gets a bit repetitious in its windup to the climax (oh look, we’ve cut again to the Big Brother round table), and that somewhere along the middle V for Vendetta gets log-jammed with subplots. Everyone has a story to tell in V for Vendetta and we see every personal tale, and after a while it kind of grinds the flow of the story down. However, this problem is sidestepped after awhile and V for Vendetta gets back on track, driving full-force toward its conclusion like a runaway train.
What sounds on paper as something incredibly silly, including a kissing scene involving a motionless clay mask, V for Vendetta plays out with such excitement, visual prowess, and vibrant intelligence; this is a very political movie that?s very relevant today and I loved it all the more for it, but V never forgets to be entertaining at the same time. McTeigue has fashioned together a stirring and fascinating directorial debut, and even though the Wachowski brothers have their fingerprints all over this film, the pretension is kept to a minimum. V for Vendetta is exactly what the Matrix sequels should have been: a pulpy mix of brains and action, not a snore-fest that beats you down before putting on a show. It’s a shame Moore didn’t want his name attached to the finished product, because V for Vendetta is 2006’s first great movie of the year.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Posted on March 22, 2006, in 2006 Movies and tagged action, alan moore, comic book, drama, dystopian, hugo weaving, james mcteigue, john hurt, natalie portman, politics, sci-fi, wachowski siblings. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.