V for Vendetta is a reasonably intelligent thriller that's an uncomfortable fit in the present-day political landscape. Its story of a fight for 'freedom' against an oppressive fantasy dictatorship has many excellent touches but seems partly irrelevant, like a cautionary tale that's about 25 years too late: When one is surrounded by wolves, one doesn't really need to hear an allegory about the future threat of wolf-dom.
Taken as a straight thriller V for Vendetta is certainly a good ride. A mysterious 'avenger' character eludes the police while exposing the dictatorial Blue Meanie government as liars and hypocrites. Sort of Zorro expanded into an industrial-strength freedom fighter, the masked hero is a symbol of a healthy Anarchist tradition (??), a caped romantic swashbuckler.
Starring the very popular Natalie Portman, the show did well enough theatrically but had too many 'dangerous' elements to be a runaway hit: When the posters and trailers trumpeted a hero who blows up the Houses of Parliament, it made audiences nervous. Although the movies should welcome all ideas, even dangerous ones, the public really isn't looking for a mad bomber as an identification figure, no matter whose dynamite he's tossing.
V for Vendetta was borne of 1980s anti-Thatcher, anti-Reagan sentiment and used a mixture of pulp references from The Phantom of the Opera to Guy Fawkes to tell a fantastic tale of a struggle against an oppressive, Orwellian regime. Scripted by the Wachowski brothers of The Matrix fame and directed with clear efficiency by their former assistant director James McTeigue, the 2005 film version of V for Vendetta took a lot of flak for its near- Anarchic political stance, with many critics assuming it was intended as a direct reflection of the post- 9/11 landscape of fear-driven hate-mongering. Whereas Vendetta's incidentals, especially the manipulation of public opinion through the media, do indeed resemble our present situation, the overall story is more like Dr. Mabuse than Washington D.C.. The ruling power in Alan Moore's fantasy is a straight Orwellian dictatorship, and the rabble-rousing hero is no more original than a comic book avenger aiming to inspire the downtrodden public to rebellion. The show probably wanders too close to Anarchist-Chic, in that many of its fans won't really care what it's about beyond martial arts action and rebellious posturing.
V for Vendetta is an often exciting action suspense tale about the overthrow of a convincing Empire of Evil. It even has room for Matrix-like knife dervish fight scenes, an implied romance and a near-superhero lead character who lives in a secret underground lair blessed with inspired art direction. Hugo Weaving takes the Claude Rains "Invisible Man" prize for playing an entire role without once showing his face. As he always wears a mask, it's up to superstar Natalie Portman to carry more than half of the film, and she's fine. V spouts Shakespeare and Right-On revolutionary couplets with a silken voice inspired by Robert Donat in The Count of Monte Cristo, which he watches incessantly. 1
Alan Moore's graphic novel, like his epic Watchmen, pulls in a number of direct cultural and filmic references --- if Film School directors can do it, why not comic books? --- for its many tangential subplots. The Wachowski brothers simplify this into two or three major themes but retain the flavor of the original. It's actually well structured, something not seen in many Comic Book movies and certainly not in the ponderous Matrix films.
The first major revelation is the back-story of an atrocious medical lab where V was meant to be killed along with hundred or thousands of other human guinea pigs, but instead emerged a charred semi-superhero. 2 As it turns out, the ambitious and utterly ruthless Evil politician Adam Sutler (John Hurt) wanted to develop a controllable virus attack, which he could unleash on Britain for political purposes. He creates a false threat and when the country is desperate steps in as the savior, after being granted dictatorial powers, of course. His draconian police cover up all trace of the experiments and anyone who remembers how so many victims 'disappeared' is encouraged to forget.
Literal-minded critics jumped on V for Vendetta by assuming that this self-created crisis was meant to represent 9/11, even though the story predated that event by almost two decades. 1997's Starship Troopers has a very 9/11 attack from space that motivates a dishonest war, but even that movie requires a heavy dose of paranoia to conclude that the Earth government purposely wiped out Buenos Aires to create a consensus for war.
The virus attack in V for Vendetta simply takes political opportunism to the next level: If Marcus Licinius Crassus hadn't had Spartacus as an excuse to assume dictatorship, he'd have had to invent him, etc. Hitler certainly did things like this on a smaller scale, burning a building and then blaming it on the Bolsheviks, or stage directing a border skirmish to 'justify' a massive invasion of Poland. And plenty of politicians are reared on the practice of doing dastardly deeds, and then cleverly shifting the blame to a convenient political enemy. It's only a matter of which lies one chooses to believe. With enough lies the public disengages and stops paying attention. That's when the wolves really take over.
V for Vendetta's functional plot traces the journey of Portman's Evey Hammond from apolitical benchwarmer to full-fledged radical avenger, someone new to fill V's boots. Moore uses a police investigation format (with the very likeable Stephen Rea) to help uncover Chancellor Sutler's past crimes, and keeps things much clearer than the clumsy old A.I.P. thriller Scream and Scream Again, a similar investigation into a grandiose government conspiracy. Rea's Inspector Finch takes the same journey as Evey, but from the opposite end; threatened by Sutler at every turn, he finds only villains in authority above him. When push comes to shove, Fince has no trouble choosing sides. It's a shame that he never captures his man, even symbolically.
The story trips up now and then. (Mild Spoilers here). V's campaign to discredit the government goes swimmingly, as the average Brit family already distrusts most every bit of predigested TV news. (I'd prefer V reading the evening News to Katie Couric, actually). V's secondary aim, to eliminate the corrupt mass murderers in the vile Virus lab, is an arcane throwback to the days of Fantomas and Judex, where no vendetta is too far-fetched. V seemingly has no faith in the public finding out the truth, as he murders all of the prime suspects who could testify to the death camp being real. That's either very foolish, or cynically astute -- the world overflows with the truth on every issue, but in the 'open market' of information the truth all too frequently loses out to sales pitches and disinformation. If it isn't discredited, smeared or ridiculed, the truth is drowned out by a lack of funding.
Interestingly, V reserves his sentiments for a higher political plane. (Spoiler) One of his victims (Sinéad Cusack) was fooled into participating in the Virus plot until she was in too deep to back out. She's even contrite. When V kills her, neither has any doubt but that her death is the only possible path to atonement. That's an unusual attitude.
(Big spoiler) However, the ordeal V puts Evey through is much less convincing. Only in a very abstract story does a person undergo torture, deprivation and subtle brainwashing (hmm, very Guantanamo-like), and come out the other end thanking the torturer for helping one attain a higher spiritual level. Maybe Herman Hesse could get away with it, I don't know. The movie wants us to accept V as a timeless manifestation of defiance to Tyranny, the story's real theme. But it also engenders a warm & fuzzy romantic connection between V and Evey, so sometimes he seems very human.
Peformances in V are quite good. Besides Rea's stubborn cop there's Stephen Fry's foolish, Benny Hill-like entertainer and Tim Piggot-Smith's engaging secret policemen. These actors lend gravity to scenes even when the comic-book martial arts battles get a little stale: V uses The Man With No Name's old boiler-plate trick to fend off a fusillade of bad-cop bullets. Further down the cast list, the lady who plays the actress-turned-medical-victim and the little girl who ably sketches V's youngest supporter offer rich vignettes. There are few roles for teen heartthrobs and twenty-something babes, a very good sign these days.
In its details V for Vendetta hits the mark more often than it misses. The media lies are barely exaggerated ("I only read the news, the government creates it") but the "Big Brother" imagery is not very subtle. Chancellor Sutler seems Evil just because he has bad teeth on a giant screen. (I suppose that V is proportionately virtuous because he has a relatively small home television setup). Some visuals aren't too interesting, such as the government's 'double cross' insignia (shades of The Great Dictator) or the rape threat to poor Evey Hammond, a tired gambit that seems to be the opening situation for everything from bad martial arts films to Redneck epics to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The most important visual is perhaps the most flawed. We're given a 'stirring' finale with massed armies of marching citizens in matching hats, capes and masks. Unfortunately, the idea of the citizenry hiding behind capes and masks to carry out illegal but "morally elevated" vigilante actions has sinister repercussions: It evokes a vision of the Ku Klux Klan. This ending also resembles the 'righteous counterrevolution' of Halas and Batchelor's animated Animal Farm. Remember that Animal Farm's altered ending was dictated by the CIA. V for Vendetta carries its own contradictions.
When times are complacent and the public needs to be grabbed by the lapels and shaken, radical provocation in the culture is a good thing. I'm thinking of Mad Magazine in the 1950s and perhaps National Lampoon in the Vietnam/Nixon era. But when the whole world is at war and the morality of all sides is too cloudy to make generalizations about "Freedom" and "Vengeance," a fantasy like V for Vendetta isn't quite as resonant as it might be. Audiences cheered Diabolik when he murdered policemen and blew up public buildings, but that was 1968. This is 2006 and only zealots, idiots and munitions salesmen think that blowing up buildings and people serves any practical or ideological purpose. Audiences watched V for Vendetta's dynamiting of Big Ben without much of a reaction. If they won't hoot and scream at the offensive ads and other propaganda before the show starts, one can't be surprised if they don't react to the 'inspiring' demolition at the end of the movie.
Warner's DVD of V for Vendetta presents the smartly produced film in a beautiful enhanced transfer. The visuals look fine on DVD, turning one's home theater into a sleek Alan Moore graphic novel for two hours and twelve minutes.
The extras that fill out the two-disc set are better and more thoughtful than the EPK filler that often clogs new release special editions. There is no commentary, sparing us the grief of listening to tired creatives trying one more time to express themselves regarding a project that they're probably sick of thinking about. You can't expect anybody who just finished a picture to have a good perspective on it.
The Making-Of story has nice input from the eager director McTeigue, while a separate feature on the design will impress art students that enjoy the details of how a film like V for Vendetta creates a consistent world. Even better are two featurettes on contextual issues. Remember, Remember is a look back at the historical Guy Fawkes and his actual Gunpowder Plot of November 5. England Prevails is an okay look at the world of serious Graphic Novel comic books, of which V for Vendetta is a prime example.
Finally, there's a Trailer and a Cat Power montage, that turns out to be a music video.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, V for Vendetta rates:
1. Actually, if V's Britain had our Patriot Act laws, V could be caught easily. Simply look up DVD renters or buyers who go for old movies about implacable gentleman avengers like The Count of Monte Cristo ... bingo -- V's identity would surface pretty quickly!
2. V is basically a gothic-Mengele version of Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen, who is blasted with a particle disintegrator but emerges as a super-being.
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