I believe it was Thomas Jefferson who said "a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing," but how about blowing up Parliament? Is that going too far? That's the question posed by V for Vendetta, James McTeigue's comic-book look at the future of England if things go Osama bin Laden's way. A Molotov cocktail flung into the current debates over domestic security and foreign intervention, V for Vendetta never mentions George Bush or Tony Blair. It doesn't have to. The parallels are there to be drawn. Or not. (It's only a movie!) But are McTeigue's script-writing collaborators Ã?' the Wachowski brothers, whose Matrix trilogy got weaker with each iteration Ã?' merely courting controversy (i.e., drumming up business), or do they have some kind of, you know, political agenda? And if the latter, what is it? Burn, baby, burn?
It's 2020. The United States is now "the former United States," just as the Soviet Union, not long after its own war with Afghanistan, became "the former Soviet Union." And England, left to its own devices, has slid into Orwellian totalitarianism, a police state presided over by a Hitlerian figure (John Hurt) who, like Big Brother, appears on screen rather than in person. Curfews are common. Everyone's under surveillance. And the news is whatever the government says it is. But there's a thorn in the side of the powers that be, a Shakespeare-quoting man-in-a-mask who goes by the name of V (Hugo Weaving). Lethally debonair, V has the ideals of a superhero and the methods of a supervillain. He'd like to see the British people rise up in revolt, and he's willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. He will force them to be free.
He may also force them to hold back a snicker, because I, for one, had trouble taking him seriously. Hideously deformed from his forced participation in a science experiment that Dr. Josef Mengele would have considered crossing the line, V has fashioned a mask in the image of Guy Fawkes, the real-life Catholic extremist who was executed 400 years ago for trying to blow up Ã?' you guessed it Ã?' Parliament. V considers himself a modern-day Guy Fawkes, but with the frozen face, the black wig and the Count of Monte Cristo cape, he more closely resembles Michael Jackson. And the stilted dialogue, including way too many words beginning with "v," doesn't help. Weaving does what he can behind the mask, purring like a kitty cat and roaring like a lion, but it's like trying to scratch your nose with both hands tied behind your back.
When Weaving's out of the picture, we turn to Natalie Portman's mug, which just happens to be one of the most astonishing in the entire history of cinema. She plays Evey, a government employee who falls under the sway of the Phantom-like V, with his underground lair and its "Music of the Night" trappings. Suspicious and afraid, she resists his anarchy-in-the-U.K. panacea at first; he's so flamboyantly disturbed, equal parts Batman and Joker. But a short stay at an Abu Ghraib-like prison, which includes a compliments-of-the-house haircut that renders her perhaps even more beautiful than before, brings Evey around. The problem, in movie terms, is that she remains more of a spectator than a participant. V's calling the shots around here. Evey's job is to answer the rhetorical question, "Who was that masked man?"
A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Margaret Thatcher Ã?' England has a knack for conjuring up repressive atmospheres. And V for Vendetta first saw the light of day in the early '80s, as the Iron Maiden was putting the clamps on 30 years of welfare-state policy. That's when David Lloyd (illustrator) and Alan Moore (writer) started serializing their graphic novel about a mad bomber with a flair for the dramatic. Twenty-five years later, with Timothy McVeigh behind us and God knows who in front of us, Lloyd and Moore's crystal ball seems less cloudy than most. They even anticipated London's subway bombings, although the meaning appears to have flipped, unless you belong to al-Qaida. Either way, the connection gives V for Vendetta a fresh-off-the-headlines immediacy, a relevance it might not have earned otherwise.
It certainly doesn't add up to much as a movie. McTeigue, who was the first assistant director on the Matrix films, may not be ready to be his own boss. He puts some nice images on the screen, but he doesn't link them in any meaningful way, and the action scenes, when V is slicing and dicing his way through opponents, are an evasive blur. You can see the blood, but you can't taste it. Overall, the movie may have been too faithful to its comic-book origins. It has serious things to tell us about the relationship between fascism and anarchism. And it isn't afraid to stick its political neck out there, risk making Osama's Top Ten List. But the movie's a little betwixt and between Ã?' too cartoony and not cartoony enough. Plus, is the Scarlet Pimpernel what audiences are looking for right now? I smell a bomb.