Quite The Bomb

Hugo Weaving, hiding behind the plastic guise of revolutionary Guy Fawkes, is the object of a vulnerable Natalie Portman's chaste affection in the dystopian flick.
Hugo Weaving, hiding behind the plastic guise of revolutionary Guy Fawkes, is the object of a vulnerable Natalie Portman's chaste affection in the dystopian flick. (Photos By David Appleby)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2006

"V for Vendetta" really should have been called "The Man in the Plastic Mask." Or what about "The Movie With the Plastic Soul"? Or even "Natalie Portman Gets a Haircut"!

Really, for all that the film gets out of its putative star, Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith from "The Matrix" movies), it could just as easily star a radio. Weaving is a fruity, stagy voice emanating from a hole in the polyurethane phiz clamped over his real mug. What emotions play across his face, what thoughts flash through his eyes, what joy nurses his mouth into a smile, what rage twists it into a scowl? Is he even acting? We'll never know. What we know is: As a revolutionary dedicated to tearing down the state, he looks like a guy in a comic book. (Wait, he was a guy in a comic book.)

That almost completely ruins the audience's ability to connect with his lonely mission, and the filmmakers know this, so they front-load the regime he despises in order to make up in hatred what they can't create in empathy. The Britain in question in some near future is a dystopian horror: It seems to have been taken over by a liberal's darkest fantasy of the conservative right -- a gay-hating, woman-fearing Taliban, puritanical and single-minded, determined to crush human enterprise, creativity and love at every stop.

Of course, others have had a hand at evoking dystopia before and they've done a great deal better: In "1984," George Orwell really worked out the engineering details of such a place and understood its conceptual underpinnings, how the essence of totalitarianism was control of language, education and history. But that was a work of art and genius, where "V for Vendetta" is a piece of pulp claptrap; it has no insights whatsoever into totalitarian psychology and settles always for the cheesiest kinds of demagoguery and harangue as its emblems of evil.

To say that the Wachowski brothers, who made the "Matrix" movies and wrote this picture from the graphic novel that has since been disowned by its creator Alan Moore, are not up to Orwell's level is not to say much. Nobody's Orwell. Nobody writing today has the guts as well as the talent to be Orwell. But they should have come up with better stuff. They say they want a revolution? Then give us a revolution, one that's believable, frightening, heroic, coherent and not a teenager's freaky power trip.

For example: In one foray into disobedience, Weaving's V takes over the national television system, by himself. When the cops show up after he's broadcast his message, they surround the place, and send in SWAT team operators. The SWAT team discovers that he's previously shipped hundreds of identical masks to the TV station, he's tied up every one of the several hundred employees (that would take hours itself!) and he's put masks on all of them (another task that would take hours).

But it never occurs to the filmmakers to think it through: Where would he get hundreds of masks? He'd have to manufacture them, no small task, and certainly one that would leave records, demand payments, receipts, prototypes, the whole ritual industrial fabrication. Then, how would he get them to the delivery service office, and would anyone there think it queer that a fellow is shipping a thousand boxes to a TV network? Clearly, nobody has thought too much about any of this stuff -- or any stuff.

One might start the bill of particulars with the mask itself. It's a caricature of Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 tried to blow up King James I and both houses of Parliament and as a consequence is burned in effigy each Nov. 5. It's true, I suppose, that as time has passed, Fawkes's memory has eroded into something warm and cozy. But the real Guy Fawkes was a bit of nasty business, and had he succeeded, it would have been the 9/11 of British history, and his reasons were as spurious as the guys' who took the planes into the buildings: It was religion vs. religion. You'd think that stuff would be gone from the world, but four centuries later it's still around.

Anyway, first-time director (but longtime Wachowski hanger-on) James McTeigue tells the story not from V's point of view, but from that of Evey Hammond, played by the eternally underwhelming American actress Natalie Portman, behind a whisper of a Brit accent that comes and goes at random. Forlorn and mundane throughout, she's set upon in the beginning by a trio of thug/cop/rapists, when V steps out of the darkness and with a samurai's grace, magically disarms and discombobulates them.

Again, in my opinion, bad: He's got daggers, they've got guns. He's faster and better with the daggers than they are with the guns. Oh, yeah? My definition of fool is the man who brings a knife to a gunfight.

That incident sets into motion a variety of plot strands: In one, he continues to seduce her -- though not sexually -- drawing her to his headquarters full of art and antiques in some London cellar (Batcave, anyone?); in another a decent cop (Stephen Rea) tries to track him down and in so doing, uncovers entirely too much undramatized back story about the origin and nature of the regime; and V continues his war of attrition by dagger and bomb on its elite. It all builds to a celebratory reenactment of Guy Fawkes's deepest dream, and we watch in rapt enthusiasm as Parliament goes up in an apocalyptic gush of flame (you've already seen it a thousand times in the TV ads).

Besides Portman's numb thespianizing, the movie is full of sordid developments. V's dagger-fighting and kung fu moves are entirely too fantastic for belief; they're just an expression of a prepubescent's dark view of total physical mastery of the universe. The villains -- John Hurt, Tim Pigott-Smith, Roger Allam -- are all pudding-faced saliva blasters, too obvious for belief. The movie's most pornographic turn, however, charts Evey's destruction by secret police, complete to the ritual shearing of the hair, as well as the horror of mock drowning. This little ploy turns really sickening when it's revealed who is really torturing her.

Then there's the movie's tasteless celebration of explosive devices taking down famous London landmarks, which it invites us to cheer as another step against the regime. But since we never believed in the regime, we're really celebrating the sheer anarchist spirit of destruction for its own spectacular sake. It's been used too much, but some Canadian comedians on the old SCTV had a riff where they reviewed films entirely in terms of how good they blowed stuff up. "They blowed stuff up real good!" they used to chortle with moronic glee glittering in their piggy little eyes. "V for Vendetta" blows stuff up too good for my taste.

V for Vendetta (132 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme violence.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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