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"V FOR VENDETTA"
(2006) (Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Drama: After a masked vigilante rescues her, an ordinary woman joins him in his quest to overthrow their totalitarian government.
PLOT:
It's around the year 2020 and England is ruled by a totalitarian government run by the fanatical Chancellor Adam Sutler (JOHN HURT) and his cabinet led by its brutal enforcer Creedy (TIM PIGOTT-SMITH). Following a cultural revolution known as the Reclamation that stemmed from mass viral deaths that killed thousands, the government has banned most forms of art, has set nightly curfews and delivers its own virtues and rules through the media, such as vehement TV personality Lewis Prothero (ROGER ALLAM).

Yet, not everyone blindly follows the government, with the main dissenter being a masked vigilante known only as V (HUGO WEAVING). On the night that he blows up a building as a symbol of his protest, he also saves mild-mannered TV employee Evey (NATALIE PORTMAN) -- who works for TV show host Gordon Deitrich (STEPHEN FRY) -- from a bunch of thugs.

When he later runs into her again at the TV station where he hijacks the airwaves to announce his dissent to everyone, he once again saves her -- this time from certain government torture for helping him -- and returns her to his secret lair. It's there that she learns he's planning to blow up Parliament on the next anniversary of Guy Fawkes Day (an early 17th century protestor who tried to do the same). But he's also on a spree of avenging past wrongs committed against him and others.

Those acts leave a trail of bodies that quickly grab the attention of Chief Inspector Finch (STEPHEN REA) and his assistant Dominic (RUPERT GRAVES) who not only want to solve them, but also want to find Evey and learn what's going on before Creedy and his goons get their hands on her. As the weeks and months pass by, V -- eventually with Evey's help -- sets out to carry out his plan that he hopes will wake up the masses and lead them into revolt against their oppressive government.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
At one point in the futuristic action drama "V for Vendetta," the masked anti-hero goes on about the power of symbols. He's referring both to those he possesses -- the frozen expression, theatrical-type mask, his Zorro-like signature mark left at scenes, etc. -- as well as the ones representing the totalitarian government under which he and everyone else lives.

Considering the film is nothing but chock full of symbolism of most every form imaginable, however, the speech isn't much of a surprise. And it's hardly necessary except for those somehow oblivious to the abundant thematic and visual imagery that permeates nearly every square inch of this offering.

Based on the "graphic novel" (full-length comic book) of the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd that was adapted for the screen by Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski (the brotherly filmmaking duo responsible for the "Matrix" trilogy), the picture marks the directorial debut of James McTeigue who previously worked with the Wachowskis as a first assistant director.

The film -- which wants to be something of an action-packed version of "1984" (which also starred John Hurt, but here he personifies the "big brother" aspect) -- is certainly timely in this era of bigger government and its tighter constraints on civil liberties and such. While I happen to agree with its assertions and overall stance (notwithstanding the vigilantism and terrorism), it's as if the filmmakers were too closely watching and then mimicking the news.

I understand the desire to create an allegory of current conditions and circumstances, but the overall bit about government inspired fear equaling political power and support, as well as the prison torture elements (with imagery straight from Abu Ghraib), are more than a bit too obvious and eventually come off as heavy-handed.

Which also holds true for the symbolism, much of which is iconic in nature. From the imagery featuring the title character's fiery rebirth (in flashback, seen several times) and the same for Natalie Portman's newly shorn character in the rain (both with arms outstretched, etc.), to the Zorro type material, the banned artwork (including swastikas and a God save the Queen poster), the Holocaust type footage of mass burial graves, and the extreme close-up on "big brother's" face on TV screens, the point is beaten into viewers just as occurs to protesters in the film who gets theirs via police billy-clubs.

At one point or another, most viewers may like state something along the lines of "Okay, I get it already -- move on with the story." And while the symbolism never ceases (including right up to the last bit of dialogue), the story does move forward on several fronts. There's the main V and Evey plot where the former somewhat serves as the mentor to and even tormentor of the latter.

A smaller bit includes her dealing with her TV boss -- an underused Stephen Fry whose character briefly dips into old Benny Hill territory -- while the rest involves two government figures -- Tim Pigott-Smith's brutal enforcer and Stephen Rea's inquisitive and increasingly suspicious chief inspector -- hot on the two main characters' trails.

Beyond the rampant symbolism (and a spectacular but rather unbelievable conclusion), the film's major problem is with the title character. Reborn from institutional abuse and seeking vengeance against those specifically involved as well as the overall government, he's designed to be the sympathetic yet cathartic character, something of The Phantom of the Opera meets Chuck Bronson.

He is by default (due to what happened to him as well as the government being so bad), but it's hard to connect with him due to his acts (where innocent people could be harmed or killed) as well as that mask that prevents us from seeing the real man. Hugo Weaving does his best to exude conflicted personality via his voice and body movements, and some viewers might not have an issue with never seeing his face (that's supposedly badly scarred and/or disfigured). Yet, I felt emotionally disconnected from him and thus much of the picture (since so much revolves around him and his motives).

Portman (who goes the Demi Moore/Sigourney Weaver route by shaving her locks) is better (notwithstanding an intermittent British accent), while Stephen Rea is as good as always, even if his character never transcends the usual trappings of such an investigator role. Hurt is appropriately bombastic as the fanatical leader, but isn't personified beyond that.

Overall, I liked the fact that the film was actually about something and had some brains behind the brawn (to be accurate, there's more of the former than the latter). Even so, I wished it wasn't as heavy-handed in beating its metaphorical message over our heads and/or that it had emotionally connected with me more than it does (positively or negatively, including on that primitive, visceral level of watching vindication play out). Good but not great, "V for Vendetta" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed March 10, 2006 / Posted March 17, 2006


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