V for Vendetta (United States/Germany, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

V for Vendetta represents 2006's first memorable motion picture - a visually sumptuous concoction that combines political allegory, bloody action, and a few stunning cinematic moments into a solid piece of entertainment. While it's true that the film at times overreaches and its connection to its graphic novel inspiration is tenuous, V for Vendetta mostly succeeds playing in the same sci-fi thriller arena as Aeon Flux and Ultraviolet. First-time director James McTeigue is relentless when it comes to pacing, rarely letting things flag for extended scenes of flabby explosion. And if there are times when V for Vendetta is overwrought and chaotic, those lapses are easily forgotten in the midst of the rousing nature of the experience.

It's 2020 London, and the world is in turmoil. Across the ocean, the United States has collapsed into civil war caused by plague, poverty, and civil unrest. Things are calmer in England, due to the totalitarian reign of fascist dictator Adam Sutler (John Hurt), whose bedtime reading is likely to be Mein Kampf. Terror roams the streets at night, not only in the form of the Chancellor's thuggish enforcers, but in the masked person of "V" (Hugo Weaving), a mysterious swashbuckling figure whose features are hidden behind the plastic likeness of Guy Fawkes. Previously unknown, he is about to become the most infamous individual in the city, a dark knight who inspires the people and enrages the authorities.

Evey (Natalie Portman), a TV station gopher and aspiring actress, is on her way home after curfew when Sutler's brutes corner her with the intention of rape - or worse. She is saved from her fate by V, who dispatches her attackers without effort. He then invites her to watch a "performance" he has orchestrated: the explosive destruction of the Old Bailey, complete with fireworks choreographed to the strains of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture." The date is November 5 ("Remember, remember the fifth of November?"), and the action is the opening salvo in V's one-man attempt to topple Sutler and his right-hand man, Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith). He offers Evey the chance to join him, but she is frightened and seeks sanctuary with television personality and co-worker Deitrich (Stephen Fry). Meanwhile, a police investigation led by Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) begins a search for the identity of the terrorist V.

V for Vendetta is a series of moments. From the destruction of the Old Bailey to V's introductory monologue (where nearly every other word begins with the letter "v") to the toppling of a massive number of dominoes to the final, blood-soaked battle, the movie offers plenty of chances for nape hairs to stand on end. (Must be the Tchaikovsky that did it for me?) The plot is a little dense at times, with the whodunit? elements never quite mixing with the edgier thriller aspects. And the Guy Fawkes stuff (he was a Catholic extremist who tried to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605) seems extraneous (probably because I'm an American).

There are plenty of ideas. Some would argue that's what the screenwriters, the Wachowski Brothers, are best at - giving viewers things to think about. Although there's a fine line between smart material and over-the-top hokum, V for Vendetta mostly stays on the right side of the demarcation. The movie asks questions about the price we're willing to pay by giving up freedom to feel safe (a far cry from "Give me liberty or give me death!"), and argues that the term "terrorist" is defined by perspective. There's an eerie speech about the power inherent in the destruction of a symbolic building that will have nearly every American envisioning the shadow of Osama bin Laden looming over the World Trade Center.

From a visual standpoint, V for Vendetta bears the earmarks of a comic book-to-film adaptation: rich images, deep shadows, and strong iconography. Although not on par with Sin City, which is more like a graphic novel come to life, V for Vendetta has the power to arrest the viewer's attention. Yet, by keeping the perspective that of a na?ve girl dragged into this brutal struggle, McTeigue ensures that the human element is not lost. The co-creator of the source material, Alan Moore, has distanced himself from the cinematic version, but this V for Vendetta works on its own terms.

No awards will be handed out for acting. Beneath the mask and cowl of V, Hugo Weaving isn't required to do more than appear imposing and concentrate on his vocals. It's an anonymous role that anyone could play. (In fact, Weaving replaced James Purefoy when he left after citing "creative differences" with the filmmakers.) Natalie Portman is solid, and particularly good during the torture scenes and their aftermath, but this isn't the most representative example of her range, and she is plagued by an inability to develop a consistent British accent. (The schoolgirl costume she wears during one scene will have fetishists drooling, however.) Stephen Rea is suitably low-key as the hangdog policeman. And John Hurt gets to salivate and chew on the scenery in a way that he hasn't been able to in years.

V for Vendetta plunders a variety of pop culture sources. Some of the references are from the graphic novel; others are unique to the movie. Without overthinking or digging too deep, viewers will be able to identify parallels with 1984, The Matrix, The Phantom of the Opera, Zorro, and even Star Wars. V for Vendetta can be seen as a political allegory, but it's not as blatant a comment on current events as some reviewers might claim. Still, if you want to go down that road, the associations are there to explore. For those who would prefer to simply enjoy this textured, futuristic tale of love, loss, and mayhem, V for Vendetta satisfies for the entirety of its two-plus hour run.

V for Vendetta (United States/Germany, 2006)

Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 2006-03-17
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1