A handful of films released during the 2005 Oscar race raised important questions about the unchecked influence of government. Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana probed the unholy marriage of business and politics in the Middle East. George Clooney’s Best Picture nominee Good Night, and Good Luck examined the witch-hunting tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the media’s subsequent response.
For a while, Hollywood had returned to the conspiracy-theory vibe of the 1970s, when political dialect and public paranoia drove plot lines and inspired the creative minds of Francis Ford Coppola, Alan J. Pakula, and Sidney Lumet. I’m happy to report that the conversations prompted by Gaghan and Clooney are carrying over into 2006 with James McTeigue’s V for Vendetta, an open rebellion against society’s close-mindedness that’s based on Alan Moore’s incendiary graphic novel (though the irritable author has renounced any cinematic version of his work). Article continues below
Moore probably will refuse to give McTeigue’s vision a chance, but everyone else should attend in his stead. Set in London during a futuristic but undetermined timeframe, Vendetta introduces a masked terrorist known only as V (Hugo Weaving), who holds a grudge against the city’s sterile, frightening, and all-powerful political cabinet (personified by a crusty John Hurt and assorted underlings).
It’s intentional that V makes a Batman-inspired entrance at the film’s start, plummeting into a dark alley to rescue Evey (Natalie Portman), the traditional damsel in distress. She’s a gofer at the British Television Network, and an eventual pawn in V’s larger scheme. As we investigate the terrorist’s history, we learn of prisoner abuse at government detention centers, and unearth a revenge plot that ties together the script’s timely messages regarding international freedom, government censorship, and the mistreatment of innocents for political gain.
McTeigue is a pupil of Matrix co-creators Larry and Andy Wachowski, who coincidentally serve as Vendetta screenwriters. The first-time director isn’t nearly as crisp or confident as the Wachowskis, though the brothers manage to imprint their influence on the finished product. Weaving, who once played the ominous Agent Smith, dips into his memory banks of Matrix fight choreography whenever V needs to take his fight to a hand-to-hand level. And like the Matrix trilogy, Vendetta dedicates its energies to expanding deeper, more meaningful messages, remembering almost half-heartedly to include an explosion or two to snap people out of their shock comas.
The revelation in this revolution is Portman, my generation’s most courageous and complete performer. Evey experiences an awakening in the face of hard truths, and Portman allows a roller-coaster of emotions to careen across her pristine face. Weaving, on the other hand, hides his stares behind V’s gleaming harlequin mask and must win us over with his recognizable voice and inflection. Both actors show tremendous range.
The persuasive ideas found in the script prevail over the unavoidable comic-book clichés and the director’s minimal learning curve. Vendetta tries too hard to humanize its antagonist, even as he performs destructive terrorist acts. V’s lair is laden with priceless art. Classical music plays as he lectures Evey on the monstrosities of government. He adores Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, even though I see him more as a sci-fi Robin Hood, stealing influence from the rich and empowering the poor.
Last year’s thought-provoking features shared two common bonds – the Academy recognized their achievements but audiences largely ignored the messages. Combined box office totals for Syriana ($50 million) and Good Night ($31 million) are decent but relatively tame. Can Vendetta, which marches along similar paths, expect the same chilly reception? Personally, I see no reason why not. Audiences don’t go to the movies to hear the messages Vendetta feeds them. Please, America, I implore you: Prove me wrong.