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Friday, April 28, 2006

G is . . . for garbage

V for Vendetta

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: James McTeigue
Running time: 132 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"V for Vendetta," the new comic-book movie based on the series by Alan Moore and featuring a script by the Wachowski brothers, the creators of "The Matrix," promises "an uncompromising vision of the future." What it delivers, though, is an unimaginative adherence to the past.

News photo
Natalie Portman (left) and Hugo Weaving in ``V for Vendetta''

Watching this flick is like an exercise in counting the comic-book cliches on offer: First up is the damsel in distress, who is rescued by the superhero from some thugs in a dark alley, a routine that features in "Spiderman," "Batman" and about every other "-man" comic you can think of. Honestly, you'd think women spent their evenings looking for the darkest, dodgiest alleys to stroll down, flicking the rats off their heels. Even the mizushobai girls know better than that.

Similarly tired is how the film's hero, a mysterious masked man named V, suddenly developed superpowers through a scientific experiment gone awry. It's amazing how in the comics, radiation and genetic mutations invariably allow you to climb walls or magically bulk up like Barry Bonds, as opposed to just causing your hair to fall out or your sperm count to drop.

And did I mention that V wears a cape? I mean, really, after "The Incredibles," have they no shame?

Apparently not, for first-time director James McTeigue proceeds to throw together a number of stylistic steals from other films: You've got the ironic-totalitarian posters from "Brazil" ("Serenity Through Unity"), V's mask and character from "The Phantom of the Opera," and the "Zen for Dummies" dialogue of "The Matrix" series, ponderous stuff like "There are no coincidences, only the illusion of coincidence," which one assumes also applies to the film's, ahem, "similarities" to other films.

The story involves a near-future fascist state in Britain, a premise that must have seemed more plausible back in 1981, when this comic first appeared, and the workers vs. Thatcher, punk vs. National Front dichotomy thoroughly polarized the U.K., and police-state paranoia were widespread on the left (which Maggie's "Iron Lady" image did little to dispel.) Indeed, the logo of "Vendetta" logo, a V slashed through a circle, closely resembles the "A" of anarchy that was omnipresent in punk at the time.

Alan Moore's comic (the author has, tellingly, had his name removed from the film's credits) imagined an Orwellian "Big Brother" state that had completely cowed the populace through threat and propaganda. A sole resistance fighter emerged in the form of the mysterious V, a man who sought to be a modern-day Guy Fawkes, the malcontent who attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605.

In the film, V (played by Hugo Weaving behind the grinning mask) first appears in the aforementioned dark alley -- a singularly unimaginative entrance -- where he rescues Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) and takes her up to a rooftop for a fantastic view as he blows up the Old Bailey with a remote-control bomb.

The government response is set in motion by High Chancellor Adam Sutler -- John Hurt, both looking and raving like old Adolf Hitler -- who has creepy security chief Creedy (Tim Pigott-Smith) and sympathetically world-weary Scotland Yard inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) get on the case. They frantically try to find V, who has retreated to his lair with Evey in tow, having broadcast a promise that he will bomb Parliament one year later.

The central problem here, and one that the filmmakers never deal with satisfactorily, is they have a hero who, in this day and age, comes off looking like a terrorist. "Blowing up a building can change everything," insists V, in one of many lines that could have been cribbed from Timothy McVeigh or Osama bin Laden. "Violence can be used for good." Perhaps it can, but when you show your hero storming a public building with a suicide-bomber's explosive vest strapped to his chest, you'd better have one hell of a justification.

McTeigue tries to load the deck by putting the government bad guys in jackboots and making the primary victims of repression gay; who isn't against bombing homophobic fascists. A nuanced film this is not. The film's one intriguing idea is that the government manufactured a scare to create panic and a need for dictatorship. The broad, Nazi-like characters McTeigue draws for the government leaders, however, don't reveal the truth half so much as those bland, gray-suited bureaucrats running the police-state in Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" (which looks more and more prescient every year).

"Vendetta" does make some nods to the contemporary, with a "yellow-coded curfew," a pedophile bishop, a killer bio-weapon virus and a Guantanamo-style gulag where prisoners get waterboarded. Unfortunately, McTeigue can ruin even rich material like this: When Evey is released from the cell where she's been horribly tortured for several weeks, she's shocked to learn who her captor is and flips out. "You did this to me!" she screams. "You cut my hair!" Nevermind the electroshock, girl.

Is it really asking so much of a film to respect its own rules? McTeigue would have us believe that this Britain of the future is an absolute totalitarian monstrosity, where the fearful citizenry are constantly under surveillance. And yet, for his coup de gra^ce, V -- the most-wanted man in the country -- somehow manages to place a factory order for tens of thousands of his trademark Guy Fawkes masks, and pays Fed-Ex to deliver them to homes all over the country.

This is entirely implausible -- try to imagine some Chinese protester manufacturing 100,000 Dalai Lama masks. But, ironically, it also shows how the hero's stance is not far removed from the control-fantasies of the government's evil dictator. Just as Sutler believes only one man can rule the country, V -- and the filmmakers -- would have us believe only one man can free it. The idea that revolution comes from the top, not below, is entirely Leninist, which may not be something Moore and McTeigue wish to be endorsing. But it also flies in the face of all the successful revolts of recent years: In Bucharest, in Manila, in Belgrade, in Kiev, change has come through mass movements, organized horizontally.

Why, in the the high-tech future of "Vendetta," no one has that revolutionary mouthpiece, -- the lowly cell-phone, with its indispensable text-messaging -- remains a mystery.

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