Friday, March 17, 2006

REVIEW: V For Vendetta

"V For Vendetta" adapts comic book icon Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel of the early 1980s. As with prior films based on his work, it's forced to work out a cinematic solution to Moore's ultra-literary, action-lite (in comic book terms) prose. In this regard, it's more successful than prior adaptations of "From Hell" and "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." At re-tooling the material's distinctly Cold War era setup to the current world situations, it's significantly less successful. But good effort.

The basic premise remains: An England of the near future has been overtaken by an Orwellian fascist government that oppresses it's citizenry through information control and secret police. Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) a secretary at the state-run news media, finds herself rescued from danger by a self-proclaimed freedom fighter named "V," (Hugo Weaving,) who has superhuman strength and wears the mask of Guy Fawkes (the British folk icon who tried to blow up Parliament.) To her and soon to all V reveals his mission: To blow up landmarks and assassinate Party officials in order to bring down The System. Evey finds herself pulled along for the ride, and is troubled by a pair of slowly-unveiling truths about her "savior": Namely, that his mission may be borne more of personal vengeance than of populist anger and, more immediately, that "right" or not... V is a madman.

Weaving does the heavy lifting as V, asked to turn in a fairly complex character performance with no facial expressions (V never removes his immobile Fawkes mask for our benefit) and elaborate pantomime. That he frequently appears more silly-looking than menacing is kind of the point, though I wonder how such is really going to play to audiences expecting an action hero... particularly those with little or no frame of reference for what the mask means as a symbol from a British perspective. Portman, by design, spends most of the film being either frantic or confused until a 3rd Act twist allows her to affect a shell-shocked icy madness. Ever a fine actress, she manages to make it flow.

A fine assortment of British bad-guy specialists assemble as the Party Members opposed to V, with John Hurt standing out in the plum but thankless role of High Chancellor Sutler; the Big Boss who spends approximately 98% of his screentime as a giant head on giant TV screens, 1% waxing the Hitlerian in flashbacks and the remaining moments as... eh, you'll see. Steven Rhea brings his grumbly A-game as Finch, the cynical detective who's investigation into V leads him to a spooky cover-up conspiracy and may (or may not) be just another part of V's master plan.

Most of this works, preserving the source material's overall effect of a standard 1984/Brave New World/Fahrenheit 411 dark-future fable re-imagined with a superhero lead and tweaked with the "oh by the way" implications that the "hero" may be nearly as twisted as those he strikes against. The re-working of the Evil State from a crumbling Hitlerian/Stalinist beaurocracy to a ruthlessly efficient Christian Fundamentalist theocracy is a little creaky, but it squares appropriately with the kept-from-the-book dwelling on Nazi-esque persecution of gays.

Less functional are specifics added to definitively remove the action from Cold War cautionary tale to War on Terror parable. Nevermind that V is technically a terrorist, thats the point. Another, less-violent protester keeps vintage anti-Iraq War protest signs and a banned Koran under glass as part of his banned-works collection; which strike a curious note by being at once "gutsy" in inviting MORE controversy but also seem a bit out-of-place given later revelations. More pointedly: Enemies of religious fundamentalism are collecting religious texts... why, exactly?


To it's credit, the film keeps the book's morally troubling "gotcha!" as to the extent of V's madness: At about midpoint, Evey gets abducted and tortured past the point of insanity by shadowy "government" figures. When it becomes apparent that she's so far gone as to be untroubled by death, her tormentor is revealed to be... V, (whom we're told became what he is via similar torture and medical experiments,) staging an elaborate torture regimen in order to make his protege' as crazy as he is so that she'll "understand." So thats the gag: What the characters (and the film) play as an awakening to revolution is actually a descent into insanity. V is a terrorist, and a monster, and while he may be a nominal protagonist he's no "hero." Whether audiences are going to process this (the film's early critics, calling it "pro-terrorist," certainly didn't) is another matter, the proof is onscreen that the filmmakers are aiming for debate and moral complexity.

All this doesn't exactly "rescue" the film from it's bigger flaws: It's a little too short for all of it's twisting and mystery, it's a little TOO talky for it's own good, and final reveals about "whats really going on" (a kind of conspiracy/business scam involving a staged WMD attack made to look connected to the U.S. war on terror) lands onscreen like a convulted last-minute detail. And while it won't unseat "Equilibrium" as the ultimate New Millenium negative-utopia actioner, it's at least smarter and more ambitious than we usually get from the genre.

Reccomended with reservation.