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V for Vendetta

Attention-deficit prone viewers will appreciate that talky bits are broken up by copious combat
A lucid madman explodes landmarks and minds in this wry, politically charged sci-fi rebellion piece.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Somewhere off in the near future the world lies in ruin, laid waste by “America’s War” having spun out of control. Britain is shattered and England survives only as a bleak Orwellian nightmare. Totalitarian conservatives have sapped every drop of personal freedom from the populace while persecuting Muslims, homosexuals and people of color in the name of security. Enter V (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix’s Mr. Smith) — Phantom of the Opera meets Zorro behind a Guy Fawkes mask — who dissents by targeting the government with bombs and blades. His crusade to crash the system finds accidental witness in timid young woman Evey (Natalie Portman), who is haplessly drawn into his world. Gradually, she is absorbed by his id and made a reluctant ally as V exacts vengeance upon the oppressors and rouses Londoners toward anarchy.

The tale is incendiary, packing all of the punch of its source material. V for Vendetta was originally comics-legend Alan Moore’s first masterpiece, begun in 1981 as an angry rebuke against the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. Adapters Andy and Larry Wachowski (brains behind the Matrix trilogy) have kept the story’s confrontational tone intact, tweaking it with small updates to heighten its relevance — see propagandist Prothero, re-envisioned as a mash-up of Bill O’Reilly and Pat Robertson. Tweaks or no, the story’s original themes of censorship, persecution, big-brother tactics, propagandizing and the people’s willing sacrifice of rights for security are acutely current button pushers.

Though the story remains untouched in essence, the Wachowskis have sharpened the material for deeper skewering. The plot’s been cleaned up, tweaked and reorganized for tighter storytelling; even the timeline has shifted to the benefit of climax. As V slashes a path of vengeance, awful truth comes to light, illuminating fascist folly in a layered story of vengeance and revolution. Convolutions intrigue without tangling the story. Evey serves as a wonderfully effective window on the conflict, a relatable character struggling through fear and doubt as she’s forced to cope while caught between an oppressive, ultraconservative society and its would-be destructor. V, meanwhile, is an articulate and charming antihero, espousing his ideals with an eloquence to offset the savagery of his actions.

As comic book action goes, this is seriously heady fare. Aside from Orwellian considerations, quotes from Shakespeare and Faust interject with regularity. Yet for all the political proselytizing, the film cuts preachiness with sharp wit. Black humor delivers from the dour without undercutting the message. Attention-deficit prone viewers will appreciate that talky bits are broken up by copious combat, as V knives knaves with deadly martial acrobatics and blows apart targets with pyrotechnic flair. Bloodletting is present but at a relative minimum, especially compared to such prior graphic novel adaptations as Sin City.

Director James McTeigue, formerly an assistant director on films such as The Matrix trilogy and Star Wars: Episode II, has crafted a brilliant film his first time in charge. Fascist London comes alive in shadowy menace even while he maintains a sense of contemporary realism to keep the film eerily relatable. Though the story certainly is revolutionary, there’s nothing particularly so about the cinematography, save perhaps adapting the “bullet time” breakthrough of The Matrix to “knife time” visuals here. It’s clean and visually rich filmmaking nonetheless. McTeigue balances patience for solid storytelling with nifty action to grand effect, and each player lends a hand with spot-on acting. Even Weaving, obscured by mask, excels.

Enjoyment of this film depends on perspective. To some V will seem as but a domestic terrorist; others will see him as an alt-future revolutionary. To grasp the latter is a provocative thrill.

Great sci-fi action • R • 132 mins.

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