Although often visually striking and undercoated by a compelling sci-fi concept, graphic-novel adaptation “V for Vendetta” feels flat as a storyboard. Chiming faintly with current counterculture vibe in higher-browed films, dystopian “Vendetta” posits a masked “terrorist” hero (Hugo Weaving) trying to overthrow a fascist state in future Blighty. Helmed by James McTeigue, pic suffers from many of same problems as last two installments of producers Andy and Larry Wachowski’s “Matrix” franchise: indigestible dialogue, pacing difficulties and too much pseudo-philosophical info. Pic should open with a bang in late March but may fizzle quickly.
Alan Moore, the author of the much admired graphic novel “V for Vendetta,” disassociated himself from this production and had his name removed from the credits. This should make his fan base extra wary, especially since two critically panned pics (“From Hell,” “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”) have already been hatched from options sold on Moore’s work.
Plot differs substantially from the written version, which was issued complete as a graphic novel in 1989. Simplified movie version, penned by the Wachowski brothers, gamely tries to retain key plot points that will serve as mass market entertainment, while half-heartedly updating Moore’s allegorical digs at Thatcher’s Britain in the ’80s to reflect current leftist fears about what a future totalitarian state might repress — not just homosexuality but Islam, too.
Brit auds, however, may feel pic has missed a trick by not taking a sharper swipe at Tony Blair’s regime.
Opening prologue shows Guy Fawkes, the Catholic conspirator who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605 and whose “treason” is remembered every Nov. 5 in the U.K. with fireworks displays.
Post-credits, story shifts to 2020, after worldwide unrest, mysterious deadly viral outbreaks and fear have caused the populace to elect a neo-fascist state, run by demagogic Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt).
On Nov. 4, TV station gopher Evey (Natalie Portman) is saved from a gang of Fingermen, thuggish quasi-police agents intent on raping her, by V (Weaving), a poetry-spouting, caped avenger wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, who at midnight blows up the Old Bailey, London’s central criminal court.
The government tries to spin the explosion, but V breaks into the station where Evey works and manages to get his revolutionary, anti-Sutler message broadcast, promising to blow up Parliament in exactly a year’s time. While at the station, he also saves Evey from two coppers, Finch (Stephen Rea) and his sidekick Dominic (Rupert Graves), who’ve come to arrest her.
Pic next metronymically crosscuts between V killing off various characters who wronged him, and Finch and Dominic investigating the murders, which leads to lots of explicatory flashbacks.
Thesping lineup offers an embarrassment of riches, which, unfortunately, the weak helming by McTeigue rather squanders. Bambi-eyed Portman cries affectingly, and looks fetching with a shaved head, but her character is essentially passive and not especially interesting. (Portman’s accent also wavers distractingly across classes, from Cockney to middle-England posh.)
Meanwhile, the film suffers as its most active character, V, is hidden behind a mask and helmeted with one of Cher’s old Cleopatra-style wigs for almost the entire running time. Weaving tries hard with voice and movement to add expression, but there’s still nearly zero chemistry between the leads.
Supports, cast predictably, are mostly just OK. Sinead Cusack as one of V’s victims manages to register one of pic’s few moments of emotional complexity.
Helming debutant McTeigue cites in press notes that 1965’s “The Battle of Algiers” was one of the film’s stylistic inspirations, but evidence here suggests he may be thinking of an entirely imaginary film that bears no relation to that docudrama classic.
Perhaps helmer thinks that the trite cutaways in “Vendetta” to stereotypically ordinary Brits roused by V’s message bear some likeness to the fervid mix of minor characters in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film.
In the end, competent but bland craft contributions ensure pic looks less like sci-fi stalwarts “A Clockwork Orange” and “Fahrenheit 451” and more like “Batman Begins” or “Van Helsing.”
Action sequences are serviceable but disappointing given the Wachowski pedigree, the most striking being the final carve-up between V and a room full of heavies. Pic is thankfully light on CGI work and gets its most rousing moments from old-fashioned pyrotechnics and, of all things, a huge domino cascade.