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Published: Friday, 3/17/2006

Movie review: V for Vendetta ***

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving in <i>V for Vendetta</i>. Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving in <i>V for Vendetta</i>.
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Terrorist heroes? Yes.

Revolutionary rhetoric? Yes.

Regime change? Oh, yeah.

V for Vendetta plays at times like a clearinghouse of pop allusions and political commentary, including 1984, Phantom of the Opera, Batman, A Clockwork Orange, Lindsay Anderson's 1968 If..., dystopian future worlds, totalitarian governments, nods to Abu Ghraib, more than a fistful of passing references to the Bush administration, the Patriot Act, Fahrenheit 451, Margaret Thatcher's England, knife fights, the symbolic destruction of landmarks, corrupted bishops, concentration camps, Macbeth, film noir, and the "1812 Overture."

The relevance is heavy-handed. The allusions are muddled.

Rubbed in our faces.

Yet completely potent.

Daring, entertaining, yet pokily paced and utterly chaotic about getting its message across, it tells the story of a totalitarian England in 2020, a virtual prison where the population is too lulled into complacency to notice their lot. But Evey notices. A young woman who works at the latest version of the BBC - Fox News meets the CBC - Evey is played by Natalie Portman as a kind of proxy for the audience: She questions where the picture is going, what point it's making.

At first anyway. She explains to us how the country became so pathetic and locked-down: "America's war grew worse and worse, and eventually came to London." Civil war and plague shifted the seat of world power back to England, and by maintaining an air of never-ending siege, a jackbooted administration took advantage. Books are banned. Homosexuality is outlawed. And freedoms curtailed.

Then a mysterious revolutionary in a Zorro cape and harlequin mask rescues Evey from the vile state police one night and reveals plans for an elaborately choreographed act of radical regime change, and she's floored.

And like us, poking holes:

Does it have to involve murder? Is there such a thing as a cleansing act of violence? Will people be hurt? Where's the line between revolution and coup? Or are we being sensitive at a time when we can't afford to be?

He answers in quotes:

"People should not be afraid of its government. A government should be afraid of its people."

He speaks truth to power:

"They promise you peace and all they demand is obedience."

He plans the destruction of the Houses of Parliament, he invites the British people to join him in restoring dignity to England, and just when the film needs a counterpoint to strengthen its argument, Evey becomes a believer, full fledged too, and the picture falls apart. "This country doesn't need a building," our revolutionary declares. "It needs an idea."

Yes, but on the other hand ...

My V is for Viva la Natalie!

Try as it may, there's nothing in V for Vendetta, the latest pseudo-subversive pop extravaganza from The Matrix creators Andy and Larry Wachowski, quite so invigorating (or truly subversive) as that Saturday Night Live video of the movie's star, Natalie Portman, throwing down a blistering gangsta rap about anonymous sex with Star Wars geeks, drinking and driving, and cheating at Harvard.

Who knew little high-minded Natalie Portman will kill your dog if you look at her the wrong way? If you're not familiar with the short film I'm talking about, ask a co-worker currently using company time to download it off the Internet. (Within days of airing on SNL earlier this month, it was a watercooler sensation, downloaded nearly a million times.) Everyone else, head to www.nbc.com - you'll find a bit of concentrated black-and-white satiric anarchy so profane, unyielding, and straight-faced, no wonder she agreed to star in it. It's as direct as V is muddled; it doesn't offer an argument then refuse to listen to your side. It's entirely one-sided and abrasive.

I'll wait here while you watch.

OK, everyone back?

V For Vendetta would love to be as angry and reckless as that - even as jokingly angry as that. Instead, it's grandly entertaining rhetoric about the power of rhetoric, fighting itself to a stalemate of an action picture.

That's a bit of a disappointment but an ambitious, admirable one: As confused as its points get, as big a mess as this ultimately is, it's a provocation pointed at the politically lethargic, which in that case makes this unlike anything attempted by a comic-book film (or a movie based on anything else for that matter) in a while.

You can't help admire the guts it took Warner Bros. to lob such a contentious, at times intentionally contradictory argument into multiplexes. It's based on a 1989 graphic novel from English writer Alan Moore (and illustrator David Lloyd) - a gloomy, prescient masterwork the movie adapts more or less faithfully. Even if Moore pulled his name off it. Studios cheapen, he's said.

Not that he's wrong, but his book was set in an unthinkable 1997, and in the intervening decade, we've thought and seen the unthinkable. History happened that not only confirms his tale but complicates it. Vendetta begins, for instance, with the bombing of London's Old Bailey.

A terrorist act, you say.

But then, the movie makes the old distinction, one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.

The bomber is V, the hero.

He hides behind a mask for reasons I won't get into. About that mask: It's a Guy Fawkes mask, in honor of the real-life 17th-century conspirator who was hanged after being found with kegs of gunpowder beneath the Houses of Parliament. V (named V for verbose, I think) wants to complete the job. His mask is a Joker face with raised eyebrows; it never moves.

Behind it is the purr of an Errol Flynn. The whole getup is enormously effective, even unnerving; Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in the Matrix films) uses nothing but body language and voice to create a character, and for a while the film milks the surrealness of masked avengers.

There's brilliance here: Never mind the scene where he and Portman curl up on a couch to watch The Count of Monte Cristo. To hide a hero of moral ambiguity behind an unmovable mask innately forces us to read what we will into every action.

That is, it does until the Wachowskis return to their Matrix ways and hold our hands and turn a discussion into a lecture. These guys love to explain. (And explain.) Evey becomes a bystander. The film becomes a police procedural with a fantastic cast; Stephen Rea is Scotland Yard inspector, John Hurt is the dictator, Stephen Fry is a sympathizer. And the problem with sympathizers in V for Vendetta is they start to look an awful lot like Stockholm Syndrome hostages.

Does it advocate terrorism?

No, and yes. It says the way to address a vile government is to tear it down and start fresh. Is that terrorism? King George thought so when the Founding Fathers of this country were talking revolution. I wish V for Vendetta didn't cede the moral ground to V. I wish it remained in the gray area where hard questions exist. And yet love it or loathe it, it's nice they made it.



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