V FOR VENDETTA is a big exciting futuristic comic book movie, produced and written by the Wachowskis, starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman, playing in Imax in some towns, but not here. It’s a movie nerds are pretty excited for, but the talk is less about is he wearing the right cape, are his powers depicted in exactly the way I personally imagined them, etc., and more about the politics. Because although it features a guy in a cape and mask who fights bad guys in dark alleys, the story is more of a 1984 type deal than a spiderman. Apparently the comic strip book was written in England in the 1980s in response to the Margaret Thatcher administration.
I saw a review in Entertainment Weekly that talked about references to Bush and Bill O’Reilly and Abu Ghraib and what not, but I figure this is more like STAR WARS prequels: it’s about all the assholes throughout history, and the leaders we have now just so happen to be members. It’s like I always say, if your government is strikingly similar to the dystopian sci-fi stories of the past then you got a problem there, in my opinion.
Hugo Weaving is the main character V, a revolutionary in a Guy Fawkes mask who spins knives around and is waging a bombing campaign against the totalitarian british government. He goes on TV and announces that he’ll be blowing up the Parliament in one year and if you agree with him that the government is a bunch of assholes, you should be there to show your support.
Natalie Portman plays Evey, an assistant at a TV station who V rescues from rapist government agents when she’s out after curfew. This puts her in league with “the terrorist” as far as the government’s concerned, so she ends up forced to hang out with him and hear his side of things.
All the reviews seem to call V a terrorist, but I think this is a mixup like when everybody decided the gay shepherds in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN were gay cowboys. V is not a terrorist, he is a very ambitious vandal. Yes, he wants to blow up the Parliament building, but since he gives a full year’s advanced warning I’m pretty sure there isn’t gonna be anybody inside. I mean maybe some dumbass lost track of the date and went into the office late, but I’d like to think a co-worker would’ve reminded him.
If V was a terrorist, by definition he would be blowing up the building to scare people into doing what he wants. But it’s actually the other way around, he is destroying a symbol in order to inspire hope in the people, and since he explains that on TV in advance I’m pretty sure everybody gets it.
That is not to say that he’s a completely clean individual, because it so happens that he is also on a Vincent Price style revenge murder spree. Throughout the movie we begin to piece together a backstory explaining what happened to V to inspire his whole revolutionary deal, and he murders a series of people involved in his past. He also does some cold blooded shit to Evey that you might not be able to forgive him for. In the original story maybe this left you feeling ambiguous about him but here, aided by the magic of badass fight scenes and dramatic musical scores, you go away feeling like he’s a great martyr. The end of the movie, where the people stand up to the Man, is very moving. It gave me chills just like it did the first time I saw it in that Eminem video.
V is a pretty cool character because 1. he hates the Man and 2. he wears an unmoving mask for the entire movie. You don’t see that too often. Even Michael Meyers has taken his mask off a couple times. This guy, you don’t know for sure if he’s only doing it when Evey’s over, but as far as we see he wears the mask 24 hours a day. There’s even a scene where he’s cooking breakfast wearing the mask. Of course, you do recognize that deep voice as Hugo Weaving, so you maybe picture an agent from the matrix, or an elf, or an australian drag queen, or a dog from BABE under there. So it’s not a complete mystery. But Hugo does a real good job, it’s hard to imagine another voice behind the mask being as effective.
I got one criticism for this character though, the same problem I have with the Crow. This guy goes around beating up fascists, and he keeps quoting Shakespeare and shit at them. I’m sorry V, you may know alot about Shakespeare, but the average person you’re beating up probaly does not. You’re just talking gibberish as far as they and, possibly, I, am concerned. A knife fight is not an appropriate venue for literary discussion. Save it for the coffee shop, smartypants.
V has a cool bachelor pad he calls The Shadow Gallery, where he keeps movie posters and famous paintings he stole from government censors. It reminded me of that movie EQUILIBRIUM and made me think about why this is a better take on the same kind of thing. In EQUILIBRIUM, the government burns works of art because they may cause emotion, and emotion is illegal. As far as I could tell, that doesn’t have a parallel to anything going on in the real world, unlike V where the art is banned for being indecent. Also, in EQUILIBRIUM you see them tossing the Mona Lisa on a bonfire without comment. It seemed to me a little phoney that the main character just happens to toss the most famous painting of all time in the flames like it ain’t no thang. In V you got some pretty famous paintings, but not THE number one most famous painting of all time. So that went down easier.
EQUILIBRIUM is all about the government supressing emotions, which doesn’t remind me of real world problems. But V has all kinds of shit that reminds me of what’s going on in the world now. There’s wiretapping and surveillance, wars and terrorism used to rally the people around their leaders, fake news used to spin things the way the government wants you to see them or to scare people into compliance, references to people being locked up without access to lawyers, waterboarded and convicted by tribunals, even feds putting black hoods over people’s heads. In one scene government trucks drive around picking up conversations with microphones and use computer scanners to scan for content, using them like public opinion polls. Which made me think oh shit, they’ll probaly start doing that.
There’s even a bit about the government going after gay people. I know prejudice against gays has been covered in movies before, but in a big studio comic book movie? It felt a little subversive. You know, in 1989 DO THE RIGHT THING was incredibly controversial just for having a Malcolm X quote written next to an Dr. King one at the end. Now it’s 17 years later, they can do end credits with Malcolm X samples playing over dance music. The times they are a changing, I guess.
Warning: there is dancing in this movie. Whenever people talk about the Matrix sequels, they start ranting about what they call “the rave scene,” where the humans decide that since they may be about to die fighting for humanity against an army of machines, they might as well spend their last night doing human things like dancing, sweating and fucking. To me it’s a nice touch but to literally every person I’ve ever talked to about the Matrix, it is the worst thing that ever happend to America including when Greedo touched Hans Solo’s balls under the table or whatever the deal was. Anyway, this movie also has a last dance before the revolution. I don’t think the wachowskis put it in as a deliberate “fuck you,” but I hope they did.
The guy I mentioned before in Entertainment Weekly says it’s naive to think this movie is subversive, because it’s released by a corporation. And it’s true that these corporations make money selling a rebel image in entertainment (he mentions Rage Against the Machine as an example). But I think he’s sort of wrong still and the reason, my friends, like many things, can be found in THE MATRIX. In that movie, the system (or the machine that we’re raging against) is the vast complex of robots who suck energy from our body heat and keep us sedated thinking we’re living in the false world of the matrix. (Spoiler.) Morpheus and friends know the deal, but they don’t fight back by running up to robot city and swinging sticks at them, because that ain’t gonna work. No, what they do instead is go inside the matrix and fight the system from the inside. They find more people for their movement including MVP Neo. The matrix is too big to be able to destroy, instead they have to go inside the matrix and find loopholes that they can take advantage of. Even in part 3 when the war ends they aren’t able to destroy the matrix, they just do some damage to it and make a pact to coexist peacefully with it, so people and programs who want to stay in the matrix can.
Maybe in the ’60s we had a counterculture but that was a long time ago. Now the culture is so god damn big that a couple neos and some ewoks can’t exactly counter it. Yeah we can use the internet and whatever other independent distribution channels we have, and we can do great things. But you know, I got a web sight I can write whatever I want on, but I don’t feel like I’m on equal footing with a corporation that owns tv channels, radio stations, satellite radio, magazines, newspapers, theater chains, concert venues, billboards, etc. So maybe it’s not the only way but you can’t dismiss the people who go inside the matrix and take advantage of their increased kung fu abilities. I bet FAHRENHEIT 9-11 and V FOR VENDETTA change more minds than Robert Greenwald’s movies, and not just because they’re better movies. It’s also because you gotta reach out to people inside the matrix and not just the older couples at your weekly anti-imperialist potluck.
But all that’s kind of beside the point anyway because V FOR VENDETTA is more of a movie than it is a political essay, so it better fuckin work as a movie if anybody’s gonna give a shit what it’s saying. I didn’t think it worked from beginning to end – it got a little clunky as the backstory flashbacks got more complicated, and actually I’m not sure I completely understood what exactly happened with this virus and a concentration camp and the rise of the corrupt government. It’s more about that than it is about action, but they do give you one big slow motion battle at the end for those who demand something matrixy.
Maybe the deck is a little loaded though. Not that it’s unfair to the assholes of history, but it does make revolution seem easy after you’ve decided you want it. We don’t ever see the people who believe the news, the people who like the government. If everybody hated the government then this sort of thing would be alot easier to do. But in real life, there’s a good portion of people who could be skinned by George Bush and thrown in a vat of lemon juice and they’d crawl out and ask to have their picture taken with him. That’s the problem. Maybe a better example: there were alot of people sad that Milosevic died.
Overall I think the movie works, though. It asks you whether you’re more loyal to your government or to liberty, and whether you’re willing to risk standing up for it. And it also has this sort of phantom of the opera fucked up romance tragedy going on that I think is interesting. And it all builds to an inevitable but satisfying climax that’ll probaly either warm your heart or depress you because you can’t picture it really happening.
Anyway if you’re like me and you like entertaining genre movies that you can read a leftist subtext into, this movie’s for you. And they never had THEY LIVE in Imax, so be thankful for this one.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.