Comic-book superhero movies almost always hijack reality, reducing cinema to a state of pure, uncut escapism. You could hardly level that accusation, though, against V for Vendetta. Written and produced by Andy and Larry Wachowski, the creators of the Matrix trilogy, who based it on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, this bombs-away delirious avenger fantasy is set in a police-state Britain that draws elements from 1984 but, mostly, from the post-9/11 world, and it pushes its topical relevance in your face — that is, when it’s not hitting you over the head with it, or bashing you in the solar plexus.
In V for Vendetta, the United States, reeling from a misguided war of dominion, has ceded the centrality of its global power back to Britain, whose ruler, Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), looms Big Brother-like on oversize video screens, backed by a flag done in neo-Nazi red and black. (Can you say, bad guy?) As his scowling backup minister plots in the shadows (can you say, Dick Cheney?), the anchorpeople on the British Television Network report what the government tells them to, as the populace — a nation of couch potatoes — drink in the media lies that no one pretends to believe. Citizens are covered in hoods and subjected to torture (Abu Ghraib, anyone?), and if that doesn’t sound overheated enough, there’s a priest with a taste for young flesh, a popular bushy-browed TV demagogue who’s like Bill O’Reilly crossed with Nixon, and a pointed allusion to Timothy McVeigh’s homemade fertilizer bomb. Did I mention that the hero is an apocalyptic terrorist?
Known as V, he first shows up, all cutthroat eloquence and whirling, flying blades, like a merry-prankster Zorro, just in time to save the innocent Evey (Natalie Portman) from arrest — or worse — by state policemen. Dressed in black, with a cape, shiny gloves, and squared-off cap, plus a wig of flowing ebony hair that wouldn’t look out of place on Bettie Page, V wears a mask that he never takes off — a grinning ceramic visage of Guy Fawkes, the 17th-century British anarchist hero, with pink cheeks and eyebrows raised in delight. It’s like a Halloween mask of the Joker, but when this joker speaks, the words flow out in a velvety aristocratic purr — a gush of moral indignation. V, played sensationally by Hugo Weaving, is a droll and charming devil-doll. He’s also a bit twee, given to soaring flights of alliteration and a few too many Shakespeare quotes.
The first-time director, James McTeigue, may have been influenced by the one inspired touch in Eyes Wide Shut: the spooky surrealism of a mask that ”talks.” Jamming the signal at the BTN studios, V asks for the citizens of England to rise up and join him in annihilating Parliament. As we listen to his lofty call to arms, it’s hard not to hear an overtone of Osama bin Laden, and for a few moments the film seems inspired in the daring of its off-kilter sympathy. But once V gets Evey in his underground lair, bursting with old paintings and a jukebox that plays Julie London singing ”Cry Me a River,” you realize you’re on far more familiar turf than you thought. A disfigured monster-saint seeking vengeance through action, V is Batman crossed with the Phantom of the Opera with a touch of the killer from Scream.
As a fix of pop iconography, V for Vendetta is eyeball grabbing, even if it lacks the relentless videogame bravura that sold the Matrix films. As a movie, however, it’s merely okay, with a pivotal dramatic weakness: Evey, for all the attentions of her revolutionary Svengali, remains, in essence, a bystander, and Portman, her head shaved, plays her like Joan of Arc as a tremulous Girl Scout. There’s one startling sequence in which the chancellor’s fake appearance on a variety show becomes a black-as-midnight Benny Hill sketch. There’s also a down-the-rabbit-hole flourish — it has to do with Evey’s confinement and torture — that would bend your mind a lot more if the film did what it appears, for a moment, to be doing: cast V in a morally ambiguous light. But he remains the saintliest of guerrillas, a Batman who realizes Gotham is too dirty to be cleaned up and must be blown up instead.
Will audiences follow him, cheering the implicit detonation of America’s institutions? Or will they find it all a bit…jejune? Coming out of V for Vendetta, a friend of mine called it ”radical” and ”subversive.” He was awestruck with disbelief that a film with a harlequin terrorist as its hero could actually be released by a major American studio. I was awestruck at his naïveté in a world where fight-the-power anarchy is now marketed as a fashionable identity statement — by the corporations that helped raise a generation on bands like Rage Against the Machine, by the armchair-leftist bloggers who flog the same righteousness day after day. V for Vendetta has a playful-demon vitality, but it’s designed to let political adolescents of every age congratulate themselves. It’s rage against the machine by the machine.