Of late, however, many a smaller-government type has been urging friends and relations to catch the Wachowksi brothers’ “V for Vendetta,” based on the 1988 graphic novel (big comic book) by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Simultaneously, the film seems to be drawing some mildly hostile press, based on the notion that it’s a bad thing to portray a hero who’s described, varyingly, as a “terrorist” or an “anarchist.”
It seems unfair to compare this filmed “V” -- clearly a serious undertaking -- to the 1983 TV mini-series “V,” an action-adventure romp suffering no delusions of Significance which starred Marc Singer (“Blademaster,” but clothed), Jane Badler, and Michael Ironside, and which featured basically a bunch of giant lizards dressed up like Jane Badler, come to earth to suck up all our water through a giant hose.
Sorry to say, I found the lizards from outer space to be slightly shameful fun, whereas my main activity while viewing this “V for Vendetta” was to wonder why the poor thing wasn’t lighting my fires.
Some of this may be the curse of high expectations. I wanted to love and sing the praises of “Vendetta.” The Wachowskis, remember, brought us the original “Matrix” (1999), God’s own take on the old “things are not as they seem” cliche, a filmic epiphany so profound that it single-handedly managed to insert into the language the phrase “I’ll take the red pill” as a metaphor for someone willing to cast off the blinders of propaganda and conditioning to view the world as it really is. (The majority who chose the blue pill still surround us, of course, sleepwalkers blissful in the illusion that the world actually works the way we were taught in “How A Bill Becomes A Law.”)
See “The Matrix.” Skip the sequels.
On the other hand, “V for Vendetta,” though I was predisposed to enjoy its theme (repressive police state with Religious Right overtones draws a challenger in the form of a much-abused champion reminiscent of Zorro), seems a film crippled, oddly enough, by its own choices.
The protagonist was deformed by unethical medical experimentation conducted by the repressive near-future regime in question. So he wears a goofy mask. Over his entire face. The whole time. We can’t even see his lips move.
Hugo Weaving does what he can with voice and body posture, but this leaves co-star Natalie Portman with essentially the same challenge as playing love scenes with a mannequin. I don’t care if this is “true to the comic book”; it’s a crippling choice. And heaven help any filmgoer who’s slightly hard of hearing and accustomed to watching lips to help him or her follow along.
The film pays due homage to “The Count of Monte Cristo,” with the 1934 Robert Donat version offered up as the abused hero’s favorite film. The plots, of course, are parallel. Each hero escapes captivity and then spends decades positioning himself to wreak revenge on his oppressors.
But in the Alexandre Dumas original, we learn HOW our 19th century hero comes into riches, establishes his new identity, and plots his revenge. The hero of “V for Vendetta,” on the other hand, lives in a police/nanny state even more repressive than our own, where citizens are spied on with omnipresent TV cameras and roving microphone trucks.
Escaping from captivity as a penniless, naked freak, how on earth does this version of Edmond Dantes manage even to survive “off the grid,” let alone accrue the wealth and expertise needed to wage a one-man revolution?
We’re given not a hint. V’s accomplishments seem like magic. Though they sound like nifty adventures, we never get to SEE him re-wiring the loudspeakers, looting a government supply train for his butter, or stealing the artifacts that decorate his lair from the warehouses of the “Ministry of Objectionable Material.”
Isn’t that one of the strengths of film: the ability to show how stuff happens?
Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket” is intriguing because we actually get to see how a pickpocket works his trade. It might not actually be possible to rip off a casino the way it’s done in “Ocean’s 11,” but the intricate exposition of the process is part of the fun.
“V for Vendetta” offers virtually no “process,” at all.
But most importantly, like Edmond Dantes in “Monte Cristo,” the hero here wreaks a personal revenge, tracking down each person responsible for operating the death camp where he was imprisoned.
They all deserve to die, certainly. But I fear critics who deem this a call for “anarchy” are overreaching.
“Archos,” in Greek, means tyrant or dictator -- even if they were often elected. “An-archos” then, is civic life lived without a tyrant or dictator to tell us what to do -- hardly an undesirable state of affairs, in the view of many.
But whether “anarchist” is used as damnation or praise, the hero in this filmed “V” is overthrowing a SPECIFIC government. While this may be well worth doing, there’s nothing anarchistic about merely changing rulers.
Will the crowds who gather to support him no longer send their kids to government youth propaganda camps tomorrow; no longer “apply for permission” to own a gun or enter a trade? Or tomorrow will they go right back to paying “their” taxes, snitching out neighbors who operate “unlicensed day care centers,” obeying judges who say “You cannot ignore the law just because it offends your conscience, you must convict according to my instructions” ... and electing a “new and better” set of “reform” politicians to rule them?
Lacking any evidence to the contrary, we must presume the latter. So the only “anarchy” here is symbolic. The hero blows up a couple of buildings. He does, at least, strike at night, though we are not asked to consider whether any cleaning ladies or night watchmen pay the price for his political statements.
Oh well. While the ethics of this are worth some discussion, there’s far less “collateral damage to architectural integrity” than in the average war movie.
Yes, the Wachowskis’ “V” is worthwhile for that montage of made-up TV crises (including “bird flu”!) when evil Chancellor John Hurt orders the TV networks to reinforce “how much the people need us” -- a cornucopia of ginned up emergencies to which we get to see a guy in a pub laughing and responding “Do you believe this bollocks?” (Ninety percent of the audience will be non-British. Couldn’t they have let loose, just this once, and allowed the speaker a more colloquial epithet?)
But -- pardon me -- what else you got?
The “love story” here is a pale echo of “The Phantom of the Opera” (replace pipe organ with jukebox.) The elimination of V’s former tormentors seems curiously bloodless, both literally and in the emotional sense. That is to say, for the most part, we don’t even get to see them killed; they just end up lying around dead. Watching has-been actor Vincent Price kill off the people who “ruined his career” by giving him bad reviews in “Theater of Blood” was more graphic, more vicariously gratifying, and (sorry) more amusing, in its macabre way. And that film was made 30 years ago.
Do the crowds at the end of “Vendetta” shout, “Yay! Now let’s go burn down the Ministry of Education and the Inland Revenue!”?
“V” is a pale and bloodless film. It lacks sweat and muscle, both literally and in the more metaphoric sense. In the end, as a celebration of oppressed individuals rising up to fight overwhelming odds in opposition to an evil and repressive state, you’re likely to get more of a thrill up your spine from any 20 minutes of “Schindler’s List” or Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” or “The Patriot.”
In 2006, are grown-ups supposed to be shocked, shocked into breathlessness by the very idea that a bad government might purposely kill some of its own citizens in order to gain more power, satisfy the bureaucratic prerogative, and keep the peasants in line? After Waco and Ruby Ridge? After Vicksburg? After the Soviet Union? Oh, please.