V for Vendetta

Narratively, ideologically, and stylistically, V for Vendetta is so incoherent”truly a mishmash of a movie”that it's hard to tell whose singular vision is onscreen. Certainly not the vision of Alan Moore, the author of the much admired graphic novel, upon which the movie is based, who had disassociated himself from the picture.

Can you blame him The bigscreen adaptations of Moore's comics were all disappointing. The Keanu Reeves vehicle, Constantine, in 2005, suffered form preposterous plotting. The Hughes brothers From Hell, in 2001, starring Johnny Depp, had problems of tone and credibility. In 2003, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, again failed to impress critics and viewers.

As a high-concept noir sci-fi, Vendetta seems to have been pushed in so many different (and contradictory) directions that is suffers from a severe case of identity crisis. As such, the movie is bound to frustrate not only Moore's aficionados but also viewers interested in the genre.

The film is helmed by James McTeigue, who was first assistant director on “The Matrix” franchise. Making his feature debut, the 41 old Australian had previously directed Heinken and Samsung commercials. Since Andy and Larry Wachowski have co-written and co-produced the picture, their signature is manifest on every frame. Rumors continue to fly about the Wachowskis' exact creative contribution (or is it interference) to the final cut.

The movie seems to have been tempered in the editing room, because scenes are often cut mid-sentence, and the switch from one locale to another is not just fast but often jarring and incomprehensible.

To be fair, there are some visually dazzling images but they amount to moments. The film is dedicated to the memory of its brilliant cinematographer, Adrian Biddle, who died in 2005, though I doubt that Biddle would have liked the picture as a whole.

Moore wrote V for Vendetta and David Lloyd illustrated as a rebuke to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the conservative “Iron Lady,” who headed the British government throughout the 1980s. The Wachowskis have taken liberties with Moore's story, eliminating some characters and subplots and updating the evil empire to the U.S. under the Bush Administration, though there's not specific reference to Bush.

Much in the vein of dystopian noirs, such as Blade Runner (a far superior picture on any level), Vendetta places at its center a masked “terrorist” hero, V (Aussie Hugo Weaving), whose goal is to overthrow a fascist state in futuristic England.

The economy has collapsed and rationing has been imposed on all but the rich and politically connected. Sutler's evil regime keeps the poor people at their place through control and manipulation of the media and suppression of free speech. Homosexuals are rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps. Citizens are executed for owning copies of the Koran. People die from biological attacks in the water supply.

Tackling too many scared cows–state-sanctioned torture, wiretapping, homosexuality, bio-terrorism, avian flu, Iraq war, even pedophile priests–turns Vendetta” not so much into a subversive film as a catalogue of government wrongdoings and endless victims.

Warner is trying to make an event movie out of Vendetta. The producers have promised a timely picture au courant with the post 9/11 zeitgeist; they have even suggested subversive and counter-cultural elements.

Nonetheless, in actuality, the film is so unevenly directed and it contains so many targets and victims that I doubt the movie would stir any controversy; more likely, it would enjoy a strong opening at the box-office but then decline rapidly.

As the last two installments of The Matrix film series showed, the Wachowski brothers are not particularly good screenwriters. They tend to go for intellectually pretentious dialogue– psychobabble–that for them passes for existential ideas. At the end of Vendatta, V, its revolutionary (anti) hero, says, “Beneath this mask there are ideas, and ideas are bullet-proof.” Well, not quite. Not in this movie, whose main problem is in the storytelling department.

V for Vendetta the movie differs substantially from Moore's 1989 graphic novel. The Wachowskis' simplified movie version retains some key themes and characters, but their effort to update Moore's critique of Thatcher's Britain in order to reflect current fears about potential future totalitarianism are not entirely successful”or resonant.

In the striking opening prologue, we see Guy Fawkes, the Catholic conspirator who tried to blow up the Parliament in 1605 and whose “treason” is remembered every November 5 with a huge fireworks display. The yarn is framed by Natalie Portman's voice-over narration, which begins and closes the film by stating “I'll never forget November 5 and what V meant for me.”

The story then moves to 2020, after worldwide unrest and mysterious deadly viral outbreaks have led to the election of a neo-fascist state, run by demagogic Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt, who was also in the film version of George Orwell' s 1984). Sutler is addressing the nation via huge TV screens that are installed in strategic places, such as London's Piccadily Circle. We are also treated to reaction shots of ordinary British citizen watching Sutler at their homes with their families.

On November 4, TV station employee Evey (Natalie Portman) is attacked at night (it's post-curfew time) by a gang of Fingermen, thuggish quasi-police agents. Just when they're about to rape her, she is saved by V, a poetry-spouting, caped avenger wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. V and Evey'sr first exchange tests their abilities as well as knowledge of literature, drama and art; she was an aspiring actress we later learn. (The entire film is richly dense with cultural and artistic references to surrealist painter Max Ernst, Shakespeare, William Blake, and the Velvet Underground).

At midnight, V blows up the Old Bailey, London's central criminal court. The government tries to spin the explosion, but V breaks into the station where Evey works and takes control. He delivers an impassioned revolutionary anti-Sutler message, promising to blow up Parliament in exactly a year's time. While at the station, V saves Evey from investigators Finch (Neil Jordan's regular Stephen Rea) and his sidekick Dominic (Rupert Graves), who've come to arrest her.

The movie emphasizes the role of one charismatic rebel, V, who has the willingness and courage to fight back. V delivers speeches like “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.” His agenda is revenge, to which goal he recruits a lonesome naf, Evey, to aid him in his plan to overthrow the oppressors.

Wearing a long black cloak, a high-peaked hat and a theatrical mask, V plants bombs and terrorizes the villains. With his identity a mystery to the city's guards and security cameras, V is declared public enemy number one by Sutler who appoints police investigators to capture him.

After V's threats, the countdown begins. The story depicts V killing off stylishly all the characters that have done him wrong. He makes sure to send them a red rose just before they die, then place the flower on their chest. Unfortunately, from then on, the text falls victim to a repetitive structure, in which each murder case is followed by investigators Finch and Dominic arriving on the scene just moments later.

Most of the film's action sequences are serviceable. The most striking sequence comes at the end, in the final reel, when V confronts his enemies single-handedly”or rather with sharp and flying daggers. All of a sudden, Vendeatta becomes exciting to watch, though it's too late to erase the bad taste left from most of the movie up until then.

One of the eagerly awaited films of the year, V for Vendetta was initially scheduled for release last November, but pushed back to spring 2006. Insiders claim the reason for the delay had to do with the London bombings in July, whereas the producers insist the movie was not ready.

No matter, though V for Vendetta has been in the works for over a decade, the story has only gained in momentum, due to the terrorist attacks in Madrid, London, the ongoing Iraq War, and the culture of fear and paranoia in the U.S. under Bush.

On the plus side, unlike most sci-fi films, Vendetta offers several strong parts for women. As noted, the movie offers the first starring role to Portman, who's been acting in supporting roles for over a decade. The second female part is played by the lovely actress Sinad Cusack, cast as a doctor with a hideous secret in her past. The third female role is that of a lesbian, who becomes Evey's mate in prison, and whose story is one of the most touching ones.

At this phase, however, McTeigue is a poor actors' director as, despite an illustrious cast that reads like a Who's Who of British theater and cinema, there are few good or interesting performances.

This, unfortunately, includes Portman, who here delivers her first weak performance in years. Her turn is further marred by inability to essay a consistent or convincing British accent, which wavers from Cockney to a more posh and elegant one. In the film's first half, she wears a long black hair; then mid-way, her hair is shaved, and she looks pretty cool as a bald woman.

It's not just Portman's fault–the problems are in the direction and writing. Evey's character is passive and not particularly well developed. Occasionally, she gets to deliver flashbacked monologues about the disappearance of her parents and brother and other secrets from her past.

It doesn't help that there is no chemistry between the stars, and a scene, in which Evie in an effort to get intimate with V kisses his masked mouth is borderline risible, if not camp.

Hugo Weaving renders what must be the most expressive man-in-a-mask performance in screen history. Though we never see his face, the thespian's mastery of vocal and physical gestures is both subtle and multi-nuanced.

In its good moments, which are few, V for Vendetta evokes Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (also in the use classic music), and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (whose story takes place one year later, in 2021). In it worst ones, which are plentiful, the picture resembles cheesy Hollywood fare like Daredevil and even Van Helsing.