In a post-9/11 world, could any film be as politically provocative as one that makes a hero out of a bomb-throwing terrorist? Nominally a superhero flick, V for Vendetta pushes buttons with the reckless abandon you'd expect from a sequel to Fahrenheit 9/11.
Director James McTeigue and writer/producers Andy and Larry Wachowski make an exciting, moody thriller of the cult-fave comic book series, begun in 1982 by writer Alan Moore and illustrator David Lloyd. Like the original graphic novel, V for Vendetta unfolds like 1984 author George Orwell taking a stab at a Batman project, as a caped crusader takes on the forces of a totalitarian England.
But V for Vendetta might be the right film at the wrong time. In an era when al-Qaeda and the war in Iraq dominate the world media landscape, the cinematic treatment of Moore and Lloyd's darkly leftist fantasy seems bizarrely blinkered, as if it's trying to critique social issues without truly comprehending them. To enjoy V for Vendetta's very real virtues, you have to take the film with a grain of salt as big as the cliffs of Dover.
Known only as "V," a masked man (Hugo Weaving) swoops in one night to rescue meek Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) from a sadistic group of futuristic England's secret policemen. Wearing a harlequin mask and musketeer costume, V swiftly dispatches the goons with the panache of a cinematic swashbuckler and the running commentary of an overeducated thespian.
V's sartorial choices and modus operandi come from Guy Fawkes, an English Catholic dissident notorious for his failed attempt to assassinate King James I and blow up the House of Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605. With Evey as a captive audience, V explodes London's Central Criminal Court with a burst of Tchaikovsky and fireworks and hints at further attacks on other seats of power.
V for Vendetta's high-velocity plots move on parallel tracks. Like a cross between a merry prankster and a serial killer, V bedevils the government by targeting such highly placed officials as a blowhard broadcaster and a lecherous bishop. Held hostage in V's museum-like underground lair, Evey transforms from meek bystander to politicized accomplice. Meanwhile, Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea), apparently the regime's only honest man, unravels government secrets and V's motivations while staying one step behind.
McTeigue and the Wachowski brothers appreciate the rapid pace and splashy imagery of comic books, and Vendetta features tense action scenes, artful shots of V's flashing blades and even such incongruous jokes as V wearing a frilly apron over his ominous outfit to cook Evey breakfast. Vendetta economically fills in a future history of runaway viruses, global chaos and resurgent fascism. As the high chancellor, John Hurt sports an oily haircut and a barking delivery recalling Adolph Hitler.
V's superhuman powers come from genetic experiments at a death camp worthy of Joseph Mengele. Although some of the film's imagery evokes Abu Ghraib, the film's police state employs the same terror tactics of numerous abusive governments throughout history. Vendetta retains some of the comic book's most harrowing chapters of tortured prisoners, including Evey's tormented incarceration (her shaved head is the least of it) and the testimony of Valerie (Natasha Wightman), a lesbian artist-turned-persecuted political prisoner.
As captured by Portman and Rea, Evey and Finch's crises of conscience give V for Vendetta real-world stakes and a human dimension conspicuously absent from the latter Matrix movies (or Portman's work in the Star Wars prequel trilogy). Weaving never reveals his face in the film, but he infuses V's voice with the melancholy of a reluctant martyr.
V for Vendetta's setting far more closely resembles Nazi Berlin or Stalinist Moscow than present-day England or America. At times, though, the film goes out of its way to draw conservative fire, as if begging for Bill O'Reilly to call for a boycott. Characters overtly ridicule the notion of a "War on Terror," and in one broadcast, "Benny Hill"-style slapstick mocks the high chancellor. When V for Vendetta implies that terrorists are just another misunderstood minority, or applauds the destruction of national monuments as a political statement, the filmmakers seem naive to the point of delusion. Audiences will still remember the fall of the World Trade Center and (at least in London) last summer's attacks on the transit system. At times, V for Vendetta's viewpoints seem simplistic in the extreme.
V for Vendetta covers itself by taking some liberties with the source material. Where in the comic book V uses questionable methods to radicalize Evey, he also tries to rouse the English populace to action in the film. His pirate telecast blaming citizens for the state of their government proves oddly reminiscent of Edward R. Murrow's editorializing in Good Night, and Good Luck.
The finale, with its echoes of Spartacus, indicates that V's actions mirror the popular will, not just the mania of a lone nutjob. Nevertheless, V for Vendetta seems to minimize the real-world dangers of terrorism at a time when it's one of the world's most pressing issues. Perhaps time will make it easier to appreciate V for Vendetta as a superbly crafted comic book film, without feeling like you're giving aid and comfort to the enemy by enjoying it.