Director: James McTeigue
Starring: Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt
Running Time: 132 min.
***1/2 (out of ****)
Right from the first scene of V For Vendetta you know this is a different kind of film. It doesn't waste any time doing what it wants to do, grabs hold, and doesn't let go for 135 minutes. It's a movie so full of deep, interesting ideas and non-stop action it almost can't be contained within the entire running length. Most movies would wait an hour building the backstory until we meet the anti-hero. Here, we see V immediately and learn more about him in the first minute than we know about any superhero character throughout an entire franchise of films. He gives an incredible speech using words that just start with the letter "V" that has to be heard to be believed, and replayed to be completely processed. That he actually has deep, interesting conversations with people, makes breakfast, and enjoys watching movies. Oh, did I mention he likes to kill people? Well, he doesn't enjoy it exactly, but it's a necessary evil. As a general rule I like to stay away from political movies about bleak futures and oppressive governments (think 1984) because I always thought there was nothing left to say and the idea well had run dry. I was wrong.
Sometime in the not so distant future in England a lone vigilante known as V (Hugo Weaving) has his sights set on overthrowing a totalitarian government led by a Nazi-like dictator (John Hurt) and sets the destruction date for the fifth of November. He enlists the help of Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), a news network intern who on a late night walk is attacked by government thugs known as "Fingermen", then saved and captured by V. At first an unwilling participant, she learns she's way too deep into this to turn back. The relationship that develops between her and the masked man, his history, and his motives for destroying the government build the framework for an emotionally complex tale that also happens to be pretty gory at times.
To be fair, the violence is completely necessary to drive home what's at stake. Before long V is the most controversial terrorist the government has ever encountered, and the most dangerous. Most movies would just rely on the fact they have a guy in a cool mask killing people and call it a day. After all, that alone would sell tickets. That it was written and produced by the Wachowski Brothers (The Matrix trilogy) gave me little hope it would be any different. The Matrix in my opinion was one of the most overrated movies of the past 25 years that hid behind the false claim it had big ideas to deliver cool special effects. That the last two movies ran out of gas was no surprise. There was nothing in the tank to begin with. It was all style and no substance. This is all style and substance.
At first we're not quite sure whether to root for V or not but the script is brilliant in the way it unfolds to tell us who the man is behind the mask and what he's fighting for. Before long, we're knee deep in an enormous government conspiracy and the movie tackles issues involving war, disease, terrorism, homosexuality and church sex scandals. The movie's political for sure (and believe me the politics fall on one side) but it never distracts from the revenge story at the core. There's talk that the political overtones of this movie were meant as a shot at the Bush administration, but Alan Moore's graphic novel from which this was based came out in 1989 so I think people have been reading a little too far into this. If you look hard enough it could probably represent any government.
When I watched this film I thought of movies like Sam Raimi's Spiderman, where the hero is fighting for essentially nothing. V was a person, had a reason for existence and it was taken away. He gets help from the only person who will listen and because of her own past she understands. She never gets to see what he looks like and neither do we. We know he was disfigured in a horrific fire and the cause of that fire is what fuels his rage. There's a great scene when she leaves him and he throws his mask in anger knowing he can never have her. The story takes a turn, effectively, into Beauty and The Beast territory.
Not only does Natalie Portman pull off a believable British accent, she gives a truly brave performance in easily the best role of her career (yes that includes Garden State). She deserves an Oscar nomination but won't get one since Academy members will get amnesia as usual when it comes to recognizing performances past November of this year. It's hard to even believe this is the same person who starred in the Star Wars trilogy, proving what happens when an actress is given great material to work with. A big deal has been made over the fact she had her head shaved in one take (and she pulls off the bald look surprisingly well), but what's more impressive is what the scene represents and the emotional punch it delivers. She goes from trapped to free, girl to woman, fearful to courageous, all in one scene. When she loses her hair she can finally let go and we realize what V is fighting for.