My fetish for masks and capes has never gone away. When I was a kid, I'd "fly" around the neighborhood, long bath towel tied around my neck, hand-drawn superhero symbols on my white tees, Robin-like masks made from old black socks. I'd stage battles with foes only I could see, spilling across numerous lawns and driveways, while the neighbors looked on, sometimes smiling, most times shaking their heads as that Perrin kid, lost in a world of lone justice, protected the cul de sac from human evildoers and large alien insects.
I still get a charge from the caped loner image. So when the English vigilante V emerged from the urban shadows to save a young woman, Evey, from being raped by government thugs, my spine switched on like an electric fence, the current bouncing from brain to toes to calloused hands. Far from being a detached adult viewer assessing this early scene on its cinematic merits, I went back briefly to Ireland Court where inside my head I flew.
"V For Vendetta" is marvelous to look at, a stylish, sometimes too glossy adaptation of Alan Moore's and David Lloyd's series of comics (later collected into a single volume) from the 1980s. The film, directed by James McTeigue and written by the Wachowski Brothers, sticks more or less to the original story, which was an attack on Tory Britain, conformity and creeping fascism. The Wachowskis have updated the scenario, pushing it further into the future where, in 2020, the War On Terror continues with the US apparently engulfed in sectarian violence (or so says British TV "news") and England firmly under the boot of a high-tech police state. Funny thing is -- or perhaps it's more tragic than anything else -- this bleak scenario seems all too believable. There are references to wars on Iran and Syria, images of imperial blowback and corporate corruption, all framed by a frightened and obedient populace, which surrendered its power and stake in society many years before.
If you're a fan of the original "V" strips, as am I, then you might feel a bit shortchanged or conceptually betrayed. "V" in print is far darker, deeper, and more resonant than the film (in the book, V blasts classic Motown in his Shadow Gallery hideout, while in the film, he prefers the sultry Julie London). But then, if McTeigue and the Wachowskis were completely faithful to the source, their effort would probably run four-plus hours. Such are the limitations of film, as well as the demands of mainstream Hollywood studios like Warner Bros. No shock there. But given all that, "V" the film has a lot going for it, and it's one of the smarter action movies I've ever seen; and though Alan Moore took his name off the project (which he always does, and usually for good reason), many of his words made it virtually intact to the screen, and his literary vision, while not duplicated, lends more weight to the final product than an original screenplay could ever match. In other words, there would be no "V" without Moore (nor without David Lloyd, who does allow his name to appear), and his presence is felt with every verbal flourish that emerges from behind V's smiling Guy Fawkes mask.
I've always had mixed feelings about the Wachowskis and their work, but I like more than I reject, and if "V" had to be made, I'm glad it was by them. Few in mainstream Hollywood try to explore the complexity and dangers of political and social mechanisms of control, and the illusion of "freedom" that keeps these mechanisms whirling. But for the Wachowskis, it's their main theme. Of course, this has led to some ponderous and humorless dialogue, as in the "Matrix" sequels; yet even there, if you're patient enough, you can find some interesting and insightful looks into our collective state of being. The problem is that "The Matrix" narrative went too long. Two films would have been plenty, the concept tighter, the message leaner and clearer. There's a reason why the first "Matrix" remains popular and pertinent, and it was sad to see its vibrancy collapse into a muttering heap.
"V", while dialogue-heavy for an action film, nevertheless keeps moving, and when I read those who found it slow or boring, I don't know what movie they were watching. I was completely taken with it, and I must say that I haven't felt so many emotions while sitting in a theater in some time (the middle story about the state's violent crackdown on queers made me cry). Hugo Weaving's V is absolutely riveting. When he makes his first entrance, spinning knives and Shakespeare's lines, I silently said "Yes!" -- he matched the voice I imagined the comic V possessed, and from that instant, I was plugged in. Natalie Portman as Evey, whom V takes under his wing, is better than I thought she'd be, especially when her character is imprisoned and tortured, a stripping down long overdue for George Lucas's wooden princess. The rest of the supporting cast, primarily Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry and Tim Piggot-Smith, do a fine job, though John Hurt's shouting, blustering dictator was too over the top for me, a totalitarian cliché straight from central casting. A softer, seemingly more personable autocrat would have given his character more menace and been more true to life. Perhaps this was intentional, but Hurt is much more cartoonish than the man who never removes his cartoon mask. It's distracting, a flaw, but thankfully does not sink the film itself.
For fanboys and comic book geeks, "V For Vendetta" may not satisfy. For them, there's always the book. But in this period of war, corruption, and attempts to clamp down on dissent and "treasonous" expression, I'm very happy that this film exists. Anything that might shake the average prole out of his or her apathy or acceptance of the dominant narrative. And that this message, warning, agitprop, what have you, is delivered by a man in a cape and mask, well, for me, that's the sugar that makes the medicine go down.