Wednesday, March 22, 2006
Movie Review: "V for Vendetta"
Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry and John Hurt
Directed by James McTeigue
After the completion of "The Matrix" trilogy, a movie series that ultimately suffered from diminishing returns, there was probably more than a healthy dose of skepticism from the moviegoing public about whatever the Wachowski brothers' next project would be. But those skeptics can breathe a bit easier now, as "V for Vendetta," while not an absolute return to greatness, is a big step forward from the overblown messiness of "The Matrix Revolutions."
Based on Alan Moore's graphic novel of almost 25 years ago, the screenplay by the Wachowskis focuses on Britain in 2020, as the country is governed under a totalitarian regime. Sutler (John Hurt), the government's leader, is that nation's version of Big Brother, ruling the land with an iron fist through fear and intimidation. As most of his communication with the citizens, and even his own government officers, takes place on televisions or giant video screens, there is an obvious disconnect between Britain's leaders and the people. In short, it's a place that's ripe for rebellion.
Thus enters a mysterious freedom fighter named V (Hugo Weaving). Enshrouded in a black cape and mask patterned after Guy Fawkes, a true-life rebel who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605, he quickly becomes a thorn in Sutler's side. V's initial appearance in the movie plays out almost like he's a superhero, saving Evey (Natalie Portman), an employee at a television station, from assailants. Then again, most superheroes aren't nearly as eloquent with a propensity for quoting Shakespeare. But V quickly shows he has more on his agenda than saving damsels in distress by escorting Evey to a rooftop to witness the destruction of the Old Bailey (where British courts are housed).
The government tries to put a positive spin on what they see as a terrorist act, only to have V quickly claim responsibility and announce plans for his next major action to take place in exactly one year. Evey is reluctantly drawn into V's revolutionary agenda, making her and her friends targets of the state. Drawing on some parallels to "The Phantom of the Opera," V and Evey's relationship is one of curious fascination to each other, as they both reveal their troubled past and come to realize they each have legitimate and understandable reasons to rebel against their government.
Confidently directed by James McTeigue (a former assistant director under the Wachowskis), "V for Vendetta" is one of those rare action movies that can equally flex its muscles while still stimulating the mind. Granted, some of its characters are a bit thinly veiled (Cutler's political rallies resemble Hitler's, a corrupted priest has a fetish for young girls), yet its depiction of V is thankfully a bit more gray. His hatred of the government is born primarily out of deeply personal reasons, and his actions are elaborately staged, yet are sometimes morally questionable.
The movie mostly avoids a heavy handed approach with the presentation of its terrorist themes, even as today's "war on terrorism" continues. Some of that credit has to go to the game cast, headed up by Portman, who has to do most of the emotional heavy lifting in the film, not to mention the sacrifice of her hair after her character is imprisoned. Weaving is also very good in what had to be a terribly difficult role, as his face remains hidden behind a mask for the film's duration. (Weaving was actually brought on board after James Purefoy dropped out, due to the difficulty of acting in a mask.)
With numerous action set pieces that carry some of the same visceral thrills of "The Matrix," people looking for escapist popcorn fare can generally get their fill with "V for Vendetta." But those looking for a little story with their fights and explosions are likely to find some challenging ideas being bandied about here. And in today's Hollywood, where the practice of dumbing down movies for mass consumption is more the norm, such an approach seems pretty revolutionary.
(Rated R for strong violence and some language.)