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Behind the mask 'V' is for vain, venomous and victorious

You knew there was something truly radical about "V for Vendetta" just walking into Monday's local promotional screening. There was no security. No regretful apologetic guy in a blue suit passed a wand over all of the audience members as we walked into the auditorium.

So terrified have Hollywood movie studios become in an era of declining box office and rising video piracy that, for a couple of years now, people at promotional screenings have routinely been "wanded" head to toe and even sent back out into the parking lot to stash all cell phones and even purses in their cars. If you chanced to go to the rest rooms during the screening, you were likely to be checked back in by a couple of bored security folks in the hall.

Not this time. Not for "Vendetta." If the film's message is "up with 'the People' and down with the Security State," Warner Brothers actually "got" the anarchist message of its own film. That may not sound like much, but in our era, such elementary corporate sentience is impressive, if not perhaps a little mind-boggling.

"V for Vendetta" is that kind of movie.

It is a wild, reckless piece of work, as exciting as anything I've yet seen to make the journey from graphic novel to movie screen (a category that includes Sam Mendes' "Road to Perdition" and Robert Rodriguez's "Sin City"). I can't pretend it doesn't have stretches that plod and even bore a little but -- incredibly -- most of its excitements are intellectual and narrative, not FX-filled and visual (though it has a goodly share of those, too). The producers and scriptwriters are the Wachowski Brothers -- Larry and Andy -- the guys whose first "Matrix" movie was one of the cooler FX-fantasies in years and whose next two were gaudy, visually head-rocking bores. All the mystic mumbo jumbo that turned the final two "Matrix" movies into sheerest nonsense has been sharply honed this time by the Wachowskis in their adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel. (He's disowned the movie. As a result, only his illustrator, David Lloyd, gets an official nod in the credits.)

It's unabashedly political. You'd have to have been born yesterday to think it's an accident that a movie declaring that "people shouldn't be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people" comes to us in an era when the government thinks its OK to wiretap civilians and infiltrate political groups.

You'd have to be even more naive, though, to think this movie is serious. It's not. It's a late-'60s/early-'70s kind of "revolutionary" fantasy that somehow made it to the multiplex in a paranoid post- 9/1 1 world.

Back in that era, the word "revolution" was thrown around all over the place. It was, 99.99 percent of the time, chest-thumping bravado and commercial labeling, no more meaningful than a TV commercial proclaiming a "revolutionary" breakthrough in the packaging of prunes. It was enjoyable fantasy, though, to think that there truly was something revolutionary about young people who, basically, just wanted to dress differently, get high, have sex and dig the newest music. (A hated war ensured that they DID demonstrate, though, which was more than a little unusual.)

So here's a decidedly unwholesome post- 9/1 1 movie that thinks there's something cool about a masked terrorist, in some future "security state" Britain, who thinks it's a grand idea to resurrect Guy Fawkes' "gunpowder plot" of four centuries earlier. In other words, here's a guy who gets the country's attention by blowing up Old Bailey (the court) and then threatening on Nov. 5 -- Guy Fawkes Day -- to blow up both houses of Parliament.

Our hero calls himself "V" (you'll find out why eventually) and is never seen without a Guy Fawkes mask. He is elegant and eloquent, despite being given to spasms of words that begin with V.

He lives in a lavish home full of treasures and listens, on his jukebox, to the likes of Julie London's "Cry Me a River" and Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz' "Girl From Ipanema." His favorite movie -- portentously -- is the Robert Donat version of "The Count of Monte Cristo," the all-time great tale of revenge in the Romantic novel.

Along the way, though, there are some nasty people to murder in a kind and gentle but showy way. Among them are a demagogic TV political haranguer and a bishop who likes to have underage girls regularly delivered to his bedroom door.

Here is a world where the leader is a "Chancellor" (John Hurt) seen only in angry, spitting, mouth-twisting warnings on TV. Repression is commonplace. Curfews are enforced at night by corrupt cops. The mere possession of a Koran can lead to your immediate execution.

V, right at the beginning, buckles some swash and saves the life of lovely Evie, who simultaneously becomes his co-conspirator, his prisoner and his inamorata. She is played by Natalie Portman, who was so happy to have top billing in a movie that she agreed to have her head shaved on camera. Think "1984" Meets "The Count of Monte Cristo" Meets "Phantom of the Opera" -- a very weird ragout of stories but a heck of a yarn when you throw them all in the pot and turn up the heat.

Add Stephen Rea, of "The Crying Game" fame, as a dogged and glowering cop who isn't at all impressed with all the competing conspiracies but wants the facts, just the facts.

The idea that a multimillion-dollar movie in our era can find something at all politically redemptive about blowing up government buildings assuredly qualifies this movie for some kind of chutzpah prize. It will also probably qualify it for a lot of finger-wagging and brow-furrowing from reflex Hollywood bashers.

If you think of it as no more "serious," though, than music biz rhetoric circa 1969, it won't bother you for a second. In fact, you may not only enjoy it immensely but roar with utterly surprised delight (I did) when you hear the song the Wachowskis and their protege director selected to occupy the end credits and the audience filing out of the theater.

I'm not going to tell you what it is. I'll tell you this, though, it's a rock classic the time is right for.

So is this movie.


Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)

Natalie Portman, John Hurt, Stephen Rea and Hugo Weaving in wild, reckless fantasy of a future Britain terrorized by a revolutionary in a Guy Fawkes mask. Directed by Lewis McTeige, rated R opening Friday in area theaters.


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