Four hundred years ago last November, an anarchist by the name of Guy Fawkes was discovered in the bowels of Britain’s House of Lords, surrounded by 36 barrels of gunpowder with which he and a dozen co-conspirators planned to blow both houses of Parliament — and, luck willing, King James I — to smithereens. Fawkes and company were Catholics, you see, hoping to bring an end to the Anglican James’ staunchly anti-Catholic reign. But they failed and were summarily hanged for what is now known as “the gunpowder treason.” In the four centuries since, Fawkes has become a storied figure, his motives alternately validated and vilified as the occasion has seen fit. And now a big-budget movie has come along to perform a wholesale act of image rehabilitation, transforming Fawkes from terrorist into one of those folk heroes whose retribution-dispensing agenda dovetails nicely with the greater good of an entire nation. He’s like Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Jean Valjean all rolled into one.
The movie is called V for Vendetta, and its central figure isn’t Fawkes per se, but rather a phantom avenger (Hugo Weaving) in a plastic Fawkes mask and Yoko Ono wig who calls himself V and who is, evidently, the only denizen of neo-futuristic London not entirely submissive to the archconservative fulminations of a despotic chancellor (John Hurt). Here, color-coded curfews are the order of the day; dissidents and homosexuals are persecuted en masse; the media can’t be trusted; and a Ministry of Objectionable Material oversees the suppression of artistic expression. Just how exactly all this has come about is something V for Vendetta never makes explicitly clear, save for some passing remarks about a war between England and “the former United States.” But you don’t have to be a master of analytic reasoning to discern that the movie’s wholesale raid on the Orwellian war chest is intended less as a warning of things to come than as a reflection of the brave new world in which we presently reside.
V for Vendetta was adapted by the Wachowski brothers from the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and its premise suggests not just a natural successor to the Matrix trilogy (with its own allegorical battle between the forces of conformity and individuality), but the latest example of what might be termed the new, socially conscious blockbuster. By that, I mean movies like last year’s War of the Worlds (with its explicit 9/11 imagery) and Batman Begins (where the Asian bioterrorist Ra’s al Ghul seeks to wipe the “decadent” West from the face of the planet) that — combined with the recent spate of more overtly topical studio films (Munich, Syriana, Jarhead) — have evidenced a reawakening on the part of Hollywood filmmakers to the political possibilities of mainstream movies. Alas, no such luck. Directed by Matrix assistant director James McTeigue, as an action movie V for Vendetta is a dud — far too long at nearly two and a half hours, with flat, grungy visuals, choppy editing and no sense of urgency. But as a political work, it’s something else — heavy-handed, reactionary and flat-out stupid. (For the record, Moore has publicly distanced himself from the film, saying it bears precious little resemblance to his original creation.)
Whenever he isn’t vaunting his virtuosic verbosity (and alliterative aptitude), V sets about waking England from its ideological slumber by turning the Old Bailey into an explosive fireworks display, taking a television studio hostage while decked out in suicide-bomber haute couture, and otherwise demonstrating that, when you want to get the public’s attention, a little dynamite goes a long way. Of course, V has his reasons — once upon a time, he was a government prisoner subjected to medical experiments inhuman enough to make Josef Mengele look like Dr. Kildare, and now, one by one, he wants to teach his former captors a thing or two about cruel and unusual punishment. But V also wants to change the world and believes there’s no better way to do it than by blowing up a building (or two or three). And rather than challenging him on that account, V for Vendetta gives V a sidekick — a lowly office girl named Evey (Natalie Portman) — who, being the child of murdered political activists, naturally agrees that terrorism is da bomb. By the time V blows up some more stuff and lays waste to a slew of establishment baddies, most of London agrees with him too, donning their own Fawkes masks and taking to the streets in a show of support. As has so often been the case throughout history, one brand of blind obeisance is traded for another, and, as the movie’s brassy musical score swells to an eardrum-pounding crescendo, V for Vendetta has the gall to suggest that this is nothing short of a triumph of the nonconformist will. In The Matrix, you at least had a choice between the blue pill and the red; here, the only choice is between the blue pill and another blue pill.
I’m not quite sure what’s more contemptible — that V for Vendetta wants us to take all of this seriously or that, on some level, it doesn’t. It’s selling armed revolution in much the same way the movie version of Rent was selling beatnik counterculture — as a fashion accessory to be sported alongside your tattoo, pierced nipple and Che Guevara T-shirt. The script is loaded with lofty talk about people who’ve been killed while defending their ideas; Malcolm X’s “On Black Power” speech even comes on the soundtrack underneath the closing credits. Not once, however, does V for Vendetta seem the least bit conflicted about its endorsement of fighting terror with terror, or concerned about exalting the legacy of Fawkes at a time when one needn’t buy a movie ticket in order to see London (to say nothing of New York and Washington, D.C.) going up in flames. At this rate, it surely can’t be long before the members of the Weathermen are reconstituted as action figures in a McDonald’s Happy Meal. It may be V who wears the mask, but it’s the Wachowskis who should be ashamed to show their faces.
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V FOR VENDETTA | Directed by JAMES McTEIGUE | Written by THE WACHOWSKI BROTHERS, based on the graphic novel illustrated by DAVID LLOYD and published by Vertigo/DC Comics | Produced by JOEL SILVER, GRANT HILL, ANDY WACHOWSKI and LARRY WACHOWSKI | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide