It's an old saw that the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist is which side you're on. In the intentionally provocative film V for Vendetta, the deck is stacked in favor of the mad bomber. The psychic wounds of Sept. 11 are still raw and the dust may have barely settled from last year's London bombings, yet this dark conspiracy thriller will likely have you breathlessly anticipating, as a force for good, the complete and fiery destruction of the Houses of Parliament.
Andy and Larry Wachowski (the reclusive pair behind The Matrix trilogy) adapted the script from the 1980s serial graphic novel co-created by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and set their former assistant director John McTiegue in the director's chair. The story, once rooted in Thatcherism, has been updated to reflect the current War on Terror and its familiar ancillaries, such as color-coded security levels and increased surveillance.
England of the near future, you see, is a bad place -- an isolated, totalitarian society, with a government that uses fear as its chief weapon to foster silent consent. It's a soulless, bleak country with little other than warm beer and state-approved television to pass the time.
Yet one man, V, styled after the legendary 17th-century bomber Guy Fawkes, has transformed a personal vendetta into a larger quest to bring down the government, so that a more enlightened model may take its place. If the authorities don't apprehend him first, V promises to finish what Fawkes started in 1605: He'll blow up the Houses of Parliament on Nov. 5.
Through two coincidental encounters, V discovers a protégé of sorts, a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman) who is transformed from office gopher into revolutionary. He schools Evey -- and by extension, us -- with his erudite and pithy critiques ("People shouldn't fear their governments, governments should fear their people") even as he is revealed to be an imperfect hero, his purity of ideals tainted by vindictiveness, vanity and madness.
I haven't read the graphic novel (yet), so you won't get any fanboy quibbles from me. I found V for Vendetta, on its own merits, to be a thrilling and provocative piece of entertainment. Despite the action-heavy previews, this isn't a typically crash-boom-bang comics adaptation. It's unnerving, heady with chatter and ideas, well paced and sprinkled with mordant humor. There's even a splash of Benny Hill.
Vendetta benefits greatly from an able cast of mostly British stalwarts, who lend necessary gravitas while keeping the zing of the film's over-the-top graphic-novel origins. Stephen Rea portrays the hangdog police detective Finch, who uncovers more than he'd like to know; the iron-fisted ruler, Chancellor Sutler, is played by the old vet, John Hurt.
The Australian actor Hugo Weaving does well in a tricky performance as V: At all times his face is obscured behind a grinning but immobile mask, thus requiring his voice and body language to convey V's many emotions. With material this heated, caricature is a real risk, but Weaving lets us see that behind the mask there is a man who is merely playing an exaggerated cipher.
Vendetta is packed with ideas, though I'm not sure that together they form a logical whole. Symbolic violence may be useful, but to whom do we entrust such power? If men can be defeated, but not ideas, then what is served when V murders those individuals he holds as architects of the fascist state?
After effectively raising our blood, Vendetta doesn't offer any real solutions -- if only it were as easy as donning a cape and outsmarting the monolith of the state! And sure, there will be complaints that the answer it does offer is regime change through willful property destruction. But it sure says something about the tenor of these times that for a few thrilling, gleeful moments, such a crime seems like a glorious act of liberation.