Mad as hell and out to rile up a politically lethargic youth audience, V for Vendetta sometimes trips on its ambitions. But who gives a damn? At least this grabber of a movie actually has ambitions, which makes it unique in a brain-dead multiplex. Better yet, V packs an urgent filmmaking energy that pins you to your seat.
Written by the Wachowskis — Andy and his transgender brother, Larry — and directed by first-timer James McTeigue, their assistant on The Matrix, the film flies on a rhythm all its own. There's nothing Neo about V, the masked avenger who uses bombs, daggers and his telegenic charisma to take down a regime that has left him a burned remnant of its ungodly experiments.
Hugo Weaving — Agent Smith in the Matrix movies — plays this terrorist grandmaster behind a fiberglass mask that makes his vocal wit and physical eloquence doubly remarkable. Never mind that the Shakespeare-quoting, rose-carrying V comes dangerously close to Phantom of the Opera kitsch. Or that his politics can be as simplistic as Billy Jack's. V has his mojo working.
And so do the filmmakers. The source material is the 1989 graphic novel illustrated by David Lloyd and written by Alan Moore, who wants no part of what the Wachowskis have wrought. Moore took his name off the film's credits. Moore's novel skewered the 1980s England of Margaret Thatcher. In the Wachowski update, England is a police state ruled by Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt), a fear-mongering, gay-bashing, Islam-hating dictator who strips citizens of their civil rights and religious freedoms in exchange for protection from bioweapons of mass destruction. Some see parallels here to BushWorld. Come on. The chancellor, as acted to the hilt by Hurt, can't be W — he's hyperarticulate.
V for Vendetta, more fun and less self-referential than those appalling Matrix sequels, is an action film that is not afraid to stop for thoughtful debate, a wry laugh or a lesson on how to fry an egg for a pretty girl. That (the girl, not the egg) would be Evey (Natalie Portman), a slave at a chancellor-controlled TV network. The station has its own Bill O'Reilly figure in the blowhard Prothero (Roger Allam). And the chancellor has his own Dick Cheney in Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith), who aims his buckshot at Deitrich (Stephen Fry), a closet gay who mocks the chancellor in a TV comedy skit. Poor Evey doesn't know where to turn.
On her first meeting with V, who saves her from rape by police thugs, Evey is taken to a rooftop for some fireworks. Not the sexual kind. V raises his hands like a conductor and directs Evey to watch as the Old Bailey blows up and lights the night sky. It's V who set the bombs, in honor of Guy Fawkes, the Catholic vigilante who futilely tried to blow up Parliament on November 5th, 1605. V, in his Fawkes mask, is determined not to fail, vowing that next year, on November 5th, 2020, Parliament will be history.
V sweeps Evey away to his secret lair and shows her his Shadow Gallery, where he keeps forbidden artifacts, such as the Koran, and listens to the Velvet Underground. It's there that she learns of V's brutal history and his reasons for murdering coroner Delia Surridge (a superb Sinead Cusack). V's politicalization of Evey is the film's core. She evades arrest from Finch (a haunted Stephen Rea), the cop on the V case, but not the hands of a hidden tormenter who jails her, shaves her hair (Portman sacrificed her own locks for the role) and pushes her hard to betray V.
Portman's English accent goes in and out, but not her performance, which becomes the heart and soul of the movie. Scratch the lousy Wars films and Portman, from The Professional to Closer, is one of the best actresses of her generation. Here she's dynamite, especially when Evey finds a letter written by a lesbian victim of torture and begins to understand V's true mission.
Though the film runs with the outsiders in society, the Wachowskis don't ignore the dark side of V's character. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle, who died in December, plays with light and shadow in ways that provide depth even when the script settles for glib.
Setting indelible images to a deft score by Dario Marianelli, McTeigue speeds us along to a thunderous climax at Parliament. Calling Warner Bros. irresponsible for releasing a film that rouses an audience to action is like calling the Constitution irresponsible for protecting free speech. The explosive V for Vendetta is powered by ideas that are not computer-generated. It's something rare in Teflon Hollywood: a movie that sticks with you.