FILM REVIEW: V FOR VENDETTA
By Michael Phillips
Chicago Tribune Arts Critic
If the h-for-hype "V for Vendetta" connects with a wide American audience, then something truly has shifted in the homeland-insecurity pop landscape of the early 21st century. It means we're ready for a cultured, sophisticated, man-about-town terrorist who espouses the belief that "blowing up a building can change the world." Finally, a film to unite movie-mad members of al-Qaida with your neighbor's kid, the one with the crush on Natalie Portman.
Various film enthusiasts, particularly suckers for anything based on a graphic novel, are hot for this picture. They argue that the story line is pro-revolution rather than pro-terrorism, set in the near future, imagining England under the thumb of a regime than makes Mussolini look like Musso & Frank. Call me a neocon - that'd be a first - but this film is in fact about a glam-terrorist who believes in better government through the demolition of landmark buildings. It's only a movie. But would "V for Vendetta" stand a box office chance today if it were set in America, not England, and the U.S. Capitol were blowing up instead of Parliament? Unlikely. We all enjoyed seeing the White House get it in "Independence Day," but there's nothing political about space aliens.
A British-German production, "V for Vendetta" is brought to you by the Wachowski brothers, Andy and Larry, gurus of "The Matrix." The first-time director - it shows - is John McTeigue, who assisted on the "Matrix" trilogy as well as "Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones." As Orwellian visions go, this one doesn't have much black magic in its corner. Only here and there do you find the spark and kinetic zap delivered by the first "Matrix" picture.
Portman plays Evey, orphaned daughter of activists. She is rescued from shadowy government abductors one dark evening by a man in a cape and a Guy Fawkes mask. (For those who don't know Guy Fawkes from Guy Smiley, look up "Gunpowder Plot of 1605.") The masked avenger is known only as V, and by his flaming logo, a V with a circle around it. Apparently he used to work in marketing for Warner.
V wants to take back England from its oppressors. Life is no fun in this near-future world: Nuclear disasters and "America's war" have lead to permanently whacked-out weather patterns and rampant, murderous xenophobia, no Muslims or homosexuals allowed. John Hurt plays the nail-spitting Chancellor, who is seen on huge video screens in a Hitler haircut, bellowing every line as if he were saying: "Fee-fi-fo-fum!"
The picture is based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, published in its entirety in 1989. What was originally an attack on the social policies of Margaret Thatcher's England now speaks directly to George Bush's America. One character adjusted from Moore's original story - Moore has already disowned the film version - is a Bill O'Reilly-inspired TV pundit with a sinister secret.
All the free-floating dread and dress-up games aren't bad for about an hour. The second half, like so many second halves of movies taken from graphic novels - everything from "Road to Perdition" to "Sin City" - grinds on, growing increasingly flabby and yakky. By the big finish, the queasy feeling in your stomach tells you that you haven't been convincingly swept into the film's call to arms.
In the masked role of V - all the time, he's got that infernal mask on - we have plummy-voiced Hugo Weaving, the unstoppable killing machine in shades from "The Matrix." Weaving replaced another actor early in the shoot. In interviews Weaving has addressed his primary acting challenge here: As he told one writer, V "has a fixed expression, yet he talks a lot." And how! In his elaborate underground Shadow Gallery, decorated with "White Heat" posters and other artifacts banned by the Ministry of Objectionable Materials, V whiles away the hours quoting Shakespeare while playing the Julie London version of "Cry Me a River" on his precious jukebox. Or else he's speaking in the most ungodly clauses ("This world - the world I'm a part of, that I helped shape ...") To his credit, however, he does not make Evey listen to "The Phantom of the Opera."
In order for Evey to become a good little freedom fighter she must undergo a concentration camp-like survival test. This section of "V for Vendetta" is a bit mad, yet Portman brings a fierce commitment to it. (It's easier to take than the interlude wherein she dons an ickily sexual schoolgirl costume for the delectation of a salacious vicar.) She grounds the heavy doings of the cautionary tale in an emotional reality, which is a way of saying she's a good actress.
Stephen Rea lends his hangdog, doleful authority to a generic role of an investigating officer trying to stop V before he makes good on his destructive promise. No suspense here, really: If he stopped him, there wouldn't be a "Matrix"-style showdown, this time with bullets and swords instead of bullets and aerial kung-fu. This scene, with its computer-generated sword-swooshes, no doubt will work with an audience, even though it's not half as cool as anything Neo got up to. "V for Vendetta" qualifies as "an uncompromising vision of the future" only if monotony qualifies as a lack of compromise.
"V for Vendetta"
Directed by James McTeigue; screenplay by Andy and Larry Wachowski; photographed by Adrian Biddle; edited by Martin Walsh; music by Dario Marianelli; production design by Owen Paterson; produced by Joel Silver, Grant Hill and the Wachowski brothers. A Warner Bros. Pictures release; opens Friday, March 17. Running time: 2:12. MPAA rating: R (strong violence and some language).
Evey - Natalie Portman
V - Hugo Weaving
Chief Inspector Finch - Stephen Rea
Chancellor Sutler - John Hurt