" In the best films, all of the elements – performance, cinematography, score – exist simply and solely to tell the story. And “Vendetta” is a fine example. Straight up, this is as invigorating, challenging, and moving a film as one can hope to expect, especially from a major studio – and the first don’t-miss movie of the year. "
Brutal, audacious, and very slippery, “V for Vendetta” is the ballsiest major studio release I’ve ever seen. If you thought “Brokeback Mountain” was daring, just wait – take that film’s thoughtful but unengaged sympathy for its “outsider” protagonists and add nationalist rage, unabashed idealism, and a healthy dose of anarchy, and you’re still not approaching the brilliant, invigorating, and incredibly dangerous film that the Wachowski brothers and director James McTeigue have unleashed upon the moviegoing public. Is calling something a work of brilliant propaganda any less a compliment, or any less a criticism? Either way, “Vendetta” is as rousing, engaging, and devious as only the best propaganda can be – a call to rebellion that dares to question our respect for authority and gives us a masked terrorist and his manipulated prodigy as our heroes. And unlike other political thrillers that seem content to simply wallow their dissatisfaction with the state of the world, “Vendetta” demands that we take personal responsibility for our actions and for the administrations that we allow to come into power.
Hold on to your masks, folks, ‘cause this ain’t your typical action flick.
The basic premise is this: in an alternate-future/present (the comic series on which it was based was written 20 years ago, so it’s fuzzy), England has risen to become a superpower, mostly due to the fact that the USA took itself out of the game by waging an unwinnable war in the Middle East (uh… anyone up there listening?). After a horrible series of biohazardous attacks on its citizens, the people of England elected the fuhrer-like Adam Sutler (John Hurt, who oddly starred as the hero of “1984”) into power, and since then he has transformed the English government into an essentially fascist empire, with its corrupt influence extending to everything, from the media to healthcare to the times at which citizens are allowed to leave their homes. “Unwanteds” (minorities, gays, the infirm or handicapped) are rounded up by stormtroopers and taken to internment camps where god knows what is done to them, and everyone lives in fear of the “Fingers” (the police) and their “black hoods” (the black bags that they put over people’s heads before hauling them off to death camps).
From out of the shadows of this bleak future-noir cityscape comes V, a mysterious citizen whose complicated past with the administration has led him to wage a widescale yet very personal attack on the corrupt government. Wearing the mask of Guy Fawkes (a rebel who attempted to blow up Parliament hundreds of years ago and whose capture is still celebrated on November 5th in the UK), V exacts his revenge with admirable smarts and a good amount of reckless theatricality – on the night that he saves Evey (Natalie Portman, playing a naïve young aspiring actress) from a few malicious cops, he has piped a symphony through the city’s public address system and blows a major landmark to bits when the cityfolk come to their windows to see what the racket is all about. In other words, this guy’s got a taste for pageantry and probably a few loose screws.
V broadcasts a call to action to the people of England, encouraging them to meet at the Parliament steps in 1 year (the 5th of November, of course) to challenge their government and its actions. Will his message that each citizen needs to look into his or her own heart and acknowledge that “something is wrong with this country” end in a rebellion, or will it be met with indifference? Either way, the government certainly isn’t going to sit idly and watch V wage his campaign against them. Through a series of perhaps-coincidental and perhaps-orchestrated events, Evey is drawn closer to V and his plans (it is also revealed that her own parents, who turned radical after her baby brother died in a biohazard attack, were “black hood” victims of the administration), and her own personal stake in the potential rebellion is questioned.
In the best films, all of the elements – performance, cinematography, score – exist simply and solely to tell the story. And “Vendetta” is a fine example. The performances are solid but not cloying: Natalie Portman’s Evey is believable and strikes the right balance of naïve and thoughtful; Stephen Rea’s government detective is suitably browbeaten but hopeful; Hugo Weaving’s V is affable and yet never harmless. Likewise, the cinematography is pleasing but not distracting – in the hands of a different director “V” could have been two hours of fisheye shots and matte composites with a few characters rattling about inside, but here the look is decidedly understated for the genre. When the action scenes do arrive, they’re well-executed and fresh, and the climactic event is simply jaw-dropping – I seriously couldn’t believe I was seeing what I was seeing.
And yet “Vendetta” is by no means perfect. It’s plot-heavy, occasionally melodramatic, and prone to cliché. And don’t be fooled by the marketing – this is by no means a “Matrix” sequel or knockoff; and isn’t really even an action film. Aside from two major setpieces and a few fights, the structure of “V” is that of a political thriller (a pre-“Bourne” political thriller, at that – it’s not a series of fight scenes, but a slow uncovering of facts and slick Machiavellian maneuverings). While the film settles into a decidedly lower-intensity groove than one might expect, the emphasis on the individual human dramas that make up the story ultimately overshadow the more superficial action elements. When the film reaches its darkest, most harrowing hour, a side story about a lone woman’s impossible love in the time of government oppression is absolutely heartbreaking, and the point of the movie becomes crystal clear: this is a story of individuals triumphing over administrations, about personal histories claiming their place in public record.
“Vendetta” is a thematic powderkeg, and one that is already polarizing audiences, much in the way that Best Foreign Film Oscar Nominees “Paradise Now” and “Munich” infuriated some viewers because they dared to present terrorists as human beings (to varied success). In placing the story in an alternate future and the terrorist heroes in the face of an undeniably demonic oppressor, the filmmakers here have sidestepped a lot of criticism. But that shouldn’t distract audiences from stopping to consider what’s being presented here: when is a rebel a hero, and when is he a terrorist? When are torture and oppression harmful, and when are they “good” (as much as I’d like to discuss this topic I can’t without giving away a major plot point)? When is possibly killing innocent people and destroying state property not an act of terror, if ever? Some might find “V” muddled or noncommittal in its seemingly ambiguous handling of these themes, but I disagree – refusing to be absolute on these complex issues isn’t muddled, it’s simply realistic. And although V’s motives (and, ultimately, Evey’s) and means may not always seem in line, the end result is an undeniable good for the people. Spielberg referred to “Munich” as his “prayer for peace”; “V” goes one step beyond as what you might call a “prayer for accountability”, a “prayer for individual will”. While so many recent political thrillers and politically-minded dramas have been satisfied to invoke themes of fascism, oppression, and individual ambition polluting the works of our governments and then merely shrug silently as these topics lay glistening on the table, “Vendetta” rouses us to action. And that, in my opinion, is exactly what our cinema should be doing.
When, during the climactic final scene, the masked rebels make their presence and their identities known to their oppressors, the effect is undeniably moving, and all but erases any minor missteps that the narrative might make in getting to its point. For those who enjoyed films like “A.I.” in spite of their deep flaws and because of their willingness to make big, bold statements about the state of our country and of humanity, “V” will strike a similar chord. Straight up, this is as invigorating, challenging, and moving a film as one can hope to expect, especially from a major studio – and the first don’t-miss movie of the year.
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