Here's something to look forward to, besides spring. On March 17, seven years to the month after the release of their fantasy classic, "The Matrix," the Wachowski Brothers' long-fermenting "V for Vendetta" will finally arrive in theaters. It's an amazing movie. Not in exactly the way "The Matrix" was (how tired would that be?), but in a new way. Apart from its elegantly constructed plot and its unusual moral ambiguity, "V" has its own rich color and lighting (it was shot in Berlin and London), and an explosive new style of action choreography that's blessedly free of high-flying "wire work" clichés. It's a fascinating picture, dark and exciting, and it will almost certainly be an enormous hit.
The movie was directed, expertly, by James McTeigue, who was the first assistant director on both "The Matrix" and its two bafflingly inferior sequels. But Andy and Larry Wachowski wrote the script and co-produced the picture, and their presence is heavily evident.
"V" is derived from a comic book. The Wachowskis are big comic-book guys. They have their own comics imprint, Burleyman, for which they've turned out such titles as "Shaolin Cowboy" and "Doc Frankenstein" in collaboration with Steve Skroce and Geof Darrow, the two comics artists they had to hire back in the late '90s to draft 600 pages of storyboards for their "Matrix" script in order to convince Warner Bros. to let Andy and Larry direct the movie. (The brothers remain fanboys, too. One of their current enthusiasms is for the work of comics writer Brian K. Vaughan, author of the intricately twisted "Y: The Last Man" series. They even ventured out of their celebrated seclusion last year to write an intro for a compilation of Vaughan's "Ex Machina" books.)
The Wachowskis had long toyed with the idea of adapting Alan Moore and David Lloyd's revered 1980s comic-book series, "V for Vendetta." In fact, they had written a script for a film version of it even before starting "The Matrix." One understands their attraction: "V" is the kind of comic you can feel turning into a movie in your mind as you read it. It's a richly atmospheric action tale about a mysterious masked freedom fighter and the young woman he recruits in his uphill battle against a brutal fascist dictatorship of the future — one that resembles not only the grim dystopia of George Orwell's "1984," but also the cyber-tyranny the Wachowskis subsequently created for "The Matrix." There are also classic genre touches (like the Shadow Gallery, V's sumptuously eccentric underground lair), and all kinds of fun cultural references, from the surrealist painter Max Ernst and the poet William Blake to the Velvet Underground and Martha and the Vandellas.
A film version of "V for Vendetta" was not a welcome prospect for the brilliant but cranky Alan Moore, however. Previous screen adaptations of the English writer's comics and characters had resulted in movies that ranged from bad ("Constantine," 2005) to worse ("From Hell," 2001) to worthless ("The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," 2003). So it's not entirely surprising that he has disowned this new movie in advance of its release. But while it's true that the Wachowskis have taken substantial liberties with Moore's story, revising scenes and eliminating a number of characters and subplots, the finished picture justifies this streamlining — it sharpens the movie's romantic, anti-totalitarian focus, and it's more faithful to Moore's hard-boiled passion than any previous film derived from his work.
"V" the movie is still set in the near future, in a post-apocalyptic England run by a maniacal dictator named Sutler (played at full snarl by John Hurt). The economy has collapsed, rationing of just about everything has been imposed on all but the politically connected and Sutler's evil regime keeps the impoverished populace quiescent with an unending media shower of lies and distortions. Government thugs roam the streets at night, to take in hand any citizens foolish enough to venture out after curfew. (Moore's story reflected his intense dislike of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the conservative "Iron Lady" who headed the British government throughout the 1980s. The Wachowskis have updated the evil empire — the cause of the apocalypse that drove the world into chaos and fascism — to the United States, clearly under the Bush Administration, although Bush isn't mentioned by name.)
As the movie opens, there's only one man left in London who hasn't gotten with the Sutler program, who's still fighting back. He calls himself V (Hugo Weaving), and he darts about London under cover of darkness, planting bombs and wreaking havoc among bad guys. His identity is a mystery impenetrable to the city's ubiquitous security cameras: He wears a long black cloak, a high-peaked hat and a bizarre theatrical mask with an ominously inflexible grin. (The costume is a tribute to an earlier English rebel, Guy Fawkes, one of the ill-fated Catholic conspirators who in 1605 plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and along with them the repressive Protestant king, James I.) To Sutler and his stooges, V is public enemy number one, and a police investigator named Finch (Stephen Rea) has been assigned to track him down. Finch's job grows more complicated after V is joined, reluctantly at first, by a young woman named Evey (Natalie Portman). As the story proceeds, we learn the full hatefulness of the Sutler regime, and the reason why V keeps fighting.
The movie is enriched beyond the call of genre by the performances of Natalie Portman and Sinéad Cusack (as a doctor with a hideous secret in her past), and especially by Hugo Weaving (he was Agent Smith in the "Matrix" movies), who gives what must be the most expressive man-in-a-mask performance in screen history — we never see his face, but thanks to Weaving's subtle mastery of vocal and physical inflections, we're never in doubt about what he feels.
What most distinguishes "V for Vendetta," though, especially from the "Matrix" movies, is its overwhelming emotional power. The movie's themes of liberty and the necessity of armed resistance to totalitarian control are thrillingly depicted, and they're perfectly complemented by Dario Marianelli's vibrant score, which is punctuated with musical quotes ranging from Beethoven and Handel to Cat Power and the Rolling Stones. It's a great movie, and it builds to a spectacular, near-operatic climax that may leave you weeping at the end, if only in simple consumer gratitude.
Check out everything we've got on "V for Vendetta."
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