Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry and John Hurt, with Rupert Graves, Tim Pigott-Smith, Roger Allam and Sinéad Cusack.
It’s been quoted that “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.”
That’s a misquote. It’s actually, “They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.”
Terry Pratchett, a 20th Century English author of fantasy novels steeped in ribald comedy.
It’s now the mid-21st Century. 2027, to be exact. And it’s Britain, operating precisely as Pratchett warned society.
Evey, an intern at the State owned British Television News does her damndest to help keep propaganda running smooth and digestible via the inescapable airwaves. Then she gets assaulted by the Realm’s authorities she’s supposed to understand as upstanding and decent.
Her beliefs end when she is rescued by “V.” And his mission.
Like with The Missing I caught V For Vendetta in its original theatrical run. It was 2006 and I was getting reacquainted with the comic book world, collecting again in earnest. After giving up comics for Lent—er, high school—I got bit again and found I had a lot to catch up on in the funny pages. Like what was this thing about Superman dying? The then recent issues made him look pretty healthy. Wolverine was cloned and now has a sister with his powers? And she was a hooker? Magneto joined the X-Men by masquerading as a
REDACTED with a REDACTED for a REDACTED? I had a lotta catching up to do.
Like Nintendo and Legos, I retired my marvelous hobby in high school. Thought the stuff was “too childish” for a “mature” high schooler. Couldn’t score chicks carrying around MacFarlane’s silver ish of Spider-Man #1. At least not in my high school. So yeah, retired the comics in the name of becoming a big boy for the 90s. Hell, according to fellow collectors circa 2006 I was told I didn’t miss much, save something about Batman having back trouble and Marvel going bankrupt. Both properties got better it turned out. Just in time for me to pick up the cudgel again.
Into the 21st Century, back into the fray. Proceeded to get hip to what had been going on outside my personal comics gulag, making a jailbreak and frequenting my local comic shop and scouring eBay for what wasn’t available at the brick-and-mortar. Now I wasn’t that dense. I knew of some major milestones in the comics pantheon, high water marks of the medium that only the dilettanti would raise a brow at. Stuff like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and the book that elevated comics from mere kiddie entertainment to actual literature: Alan Moore’s superhero deconstructionist meditation on the nuclear arms race Watchmen. Watchmen made Time‘s Top 100 greatest books of all time. I knew that from reading the rag in my self-imposed exile from comics, so there.
Here comes our quandary. How does a refreshed comic collector not get all slobbery over the magna mater of modernist comic books and yet still has a review to write that may require spittle?
Make it simple. Keep it that way.
That being said, I’m not gonna wax rhapsodic about Moore’s magnum opus (tho’ it is a great book); I’d just crow about what’s been crowed about a million times over by every terminally pimple-faced mouth breather. What I will say is that Watchmen made me a Moore fan…like every other comic book collector. It’s about the man’s literary quality. Most comic stories merely push the action along with script as skeleton. Moore’s style is the action. From what I’ve read of the man’s work, any comic book action is merely a bookend to the story. The story is the story. Moore gets this.
And that being said, the following is not a Watchman fanzine. Instead, it’ll go like this:
Comic movies in the early part of the century were odd ducks. Superhero films were either fun (Raimi’s Spider Man films) or grim (Hellboy, From Hell [another Moore vehicle]) but both dabbling the toes in the stream. Like I said in the Constatine installment Hollywood didn’t really know what they had on their hands. There was no Marvel Cinematic Universe. We were stuck with Affleck as Daredevil. This whole wad of Thomas Jane was like a sticky bomb slapped against the Hollywood machine. Big stars? Of course. Whiz-bang? Better have. Depth? This ain’t just a necessity for a submarine maneuver. Call Snipes. He be good at slicing and dicing vampires. Marv who?
This fumbling allowed precious few comic movies back then to make it to the silver screen. Again with the Constantine installment, Hollywood was slow to take the plunge into comic book as viable property. They were unsure what to do with funny books as movies back in the early aughts. Sure, the first two original Spider-Man flicks did well, enough so to resurrect Superman (to diminishing “returns.” Get it? I luv being funny and clever). Hollywood mostly played it safe, kept the tootsies in the shallow end. Barring the original Blade, Tinsel Town chose to option graphic novels. Guess they had more literary merit in their eyes. Probably more like they were self-contained without a massive continuity history that tapped an unlucky director to shoulder, as well as the wrath of hundreds of geeks for possibly f*cking it up, not getting it “right.” Pressure. Better make it work or else we revoke your rider. No more free Cheetos. Marker.
Most undertakings floundered. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, From Hell and Watchmen (at least by The Standard’s criteria). Not to mention V For Vendetta. All Alan Moore works, BTW. Guess he was the go-to guy for solid literary merit to make films from back in the Bush, Jr years. Nah. His name was the cachet for the geeks, and perhaps an entry drug for cinema doofus’ growing tired of watching Bruce Willis explode things yet get nary a cut. That’s a judgment call, but I’m making it.
As I intimated, a few of Moore’s adaptations have graced RIORI in the past, including the above Watchmen, From Hell and presently V For Vendetta. Here’s the rub against La-La Land’s scattershot yet best investment choices. Moore’s stuff is very esoteric, dense and not user friendly. Took me three reads through Watchmen to “get it,” and I was in my mid-30s at the time. I read Ulysses in a week and got it. Barring shipping time from eBay my initial foray into Watchmen took over a month. Twice as long years ago to fully scan this dense comic book serial. I’m not some snot-nosed middle schooler who desired access to tittie shots. Um, though even in my thirties I appreciated that. And plot, too. Can’t forget that. Moore’s works are like that: you expect the expected and get delightfully disappointed. LIke with Jimmy Joyce. Who needs a drink?
Too bad Hollywood kinda missed the boat with that vital aspect of telling a dense, terse and ultimately rewarding story culled from Moore’s works, even after making some necessary concessions. I expected and couldn’t argue with Zack and Co excising the “Black Freighter” subplot from the Watchmen film. If included the movie would’ve ran into the 3-plus hour range, and that’s not good for filling theaters. Sometime common sense reigns, but when it threatens the story (and often it does) we get ugly fallout that reeks of ancient sneakers and smug Hollywood indifference. Namely commerce over art.
Moore’s oeuvre has a merit that doesn’t cow to Hollywood well. I’m willing to wager that his tough subject matter welcomes high drama in the studio’s eyes. Ka-ching. The literary merit? Folks don’t go to movies to read, unless it’s a foreign film. And who watches those (ahem, everyone outside of America)? So most Moore movies often get shaved to the bone. The nuance is stripped bare. The room to breathe is lost for the sake of pyrotechnics and the latest in CGI as well as dwindling audience attention spans. Not just that, but to do so is tossing a sop to bored movie goers to hopefully get all twitchy over drama first and story a distant third. Connery retired after League. When 007 throws in the towel, you can smell the frustration against story versus execution. And this was the guy who willingly starred in Zardoz, Meteor and Never Say Never Again. Jeez.
All that being said, V For Vendetta might, just might, be the Alan Moore adapt that bucked the trend, holding on to the literary quality—the “message”—the author was approaching. Screaming and kicking against the Hollywood machine maybe, with a sluggish response. However I’ll bet the royalty checks were welcome. Not that Moore would, nor should acknowledge that.
Precious few movies based on books, plays, TV shows, video games or comics get the letter of the law as well as the spirit. The message. The Godfather movies, Apocalypse Now, Zeferelli’s Romeo And Juliet, Polanski’s Macbeth, Kurosawa’s Ran, Donner’s first two Superman films (I’ll leave Lester on a hard day’s night. Funny and clever, remember?), A River Runs Through It, the original Straw Dogs and 2001: A Space Odyessy. All maintain a sort of faithful integrity to the source material. They all did a bang-up job at the box office, too. Even from across the North American continent. You know, the foreign market?
To the point, we’re going to fly under Moore’s hermetic radar across The Pond. To a microcosm of messages, if not outrage about too much forced, profitable drama and not enough message.
There, I kept my fanboy-ism in check. To a degree and you’re welcome. Anywho, there’s a movie to tend to.
Dateline: The United Kingdom, circa 2027 CE. It’s Rule Britannia under rule…
The United Kingdom was once a bastion of freedom, integrity, national pride an stable economic viability, both financial and social for a millennium.
That was then. This is now.
England is still a bastion, but of order, control and media manipulation. It’s the mid-21st Century, and for the rest of the world it’s all strife, shortages and civil war, including the once great United States. “The Colonies” the disdainful Voice Of Fate hammers over his state-sanctioned broadcasts have descended into lawlessness. An open warning against a liberal government.
So England prevails.
The UK has become a fascist dictatorship, determined to maintain order by any means possible. Be it censorship, surveillance or cultural suppression. It’s all in the best of the people, not to mention holding on to power as long as this new order breathes.
Enter Evey Hammond (Portman), an intern at the overly influential, state sanctioned BTN, the Voice Of Fate. The mouthpiece of media for High Chancellor Sutler’s (Hurt) vision of Britain. Evey serves coffee, delivers the post and barely tolerates the talking heads that give the public what they need—must—hear. The law of the land must be enforced, lest England descends into chaos like the other former First World nations.
Sick of it all, one eve Evey decides to get all dolled up, break curfew and get some social air. Much to the dismay of the Order’s secret police who nab her and intend to give her the action she was seeking elsewhere. Anywhere but here.
Enter a stranger, eloquent and doffed in a cloak wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. He calls himself “V” (Weaving) and proceeds to dispatch the Fingermen with extreme discretion. It’s all too much for Evey to digest.
When she finds herself captive in V’s underground lair, she discovers even more to digest. She learns from her benefactor he intends to bring down the New Order by all means possible. Being a fascist state does not suit Britian’s health, emotional and social. According to V’s diplomatic argument, Sutler’s England should not stand.
Evey soon understands that her captor has some sort of vendetta. Should she come along for the ride…?
V For Vendetta was the right film at the right time. And I ain’t talking the right time to make some comic book movie. That then was just a foot in the door. Some feet shoved said door open, but V was the first to gain some traction as comic book as viable trade to make a dramatic action movie. In a weird way of a pissing contest V did better than Superman Returns (also covered here) at the ticket taker. An obscure story in a dying British fantasy magazine—half-forgotten by the author himself—managed to steal the brass ring from the Man Of Steel’s “triumphant” return to the green screen.
How’d that go down? Story. At the right time.
V dropped in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, which invited a lot of “permitted” fear-mongering and militant xenophobia (BTW, water-boarding is torture and detainees are federal prisoners. Like Olestra is to potato chips as your ass is to being glued to a toilet seat). The Twin Towers collapsed? A plane crashed into the Pentagon? Let’s not assess the ugly situations, let’s point a finger. It’s always quicker and simpler to blame the other for the bad “they” inflicted on “you.” But who’s the other?
Let me pull the hood back. I know here at RIORI I tend to pontificate under the review proper. We all have our opinions, our beliefs, about movies and otherwise. After seeing V all those years back and being refreshed now, a tidewater surge of opinions are about to splash over the lot of you. And I expect, if not demand hostile feedback from the other side of the fourth wall. Ready?
Put simply, one cannot fell two 110-storey skyscrapers with airplane impacts alone. Especially since the impacts failed to alter the collapse “trajectory.” Read: straight down. That would’ve required strategically placed ordinances. Every demolished building I’ve seen taken down collapses in on itself. Strategic, physics-compliant explosives. They don’t drip like wax from candle without a few yellow X’s spray painted to say where the C4 charge should go.. And don’t get me started on the flashpoint of jet fuel on steel. That’s been done already. Or sympathetic vibrations from a collapse cannot fell a building unless a nuke was involved.
Done. Shutting up now. Though I could choose not to.
Was 9/11 tragic? Nothing else but. But what’s worse was all that bootin’ rally that happened in 9/11’s wake. God praise the first responders, naturally. They are now honored at the weir. Now saving grieving family members (who must relieve the nightmare via TV every September 11th), name one civvy survivor. Who wasn’t surviving by accident?
Does that inquiry support my theory? No, but it might make you think. All that destruction, and not enough media attention to the destroyed? Tell that to the crossed hands in front of all those TVs into the 12th. To quote sicko comic Doug Stanhope: “Did you pray on the 10th? Didn’t do dick, did it?” It’s an open response.
In short, 9/11 devolved into a blood-buttered publicity stunt designed to have W wave his prick at his ineffectual dad who couldn’t nail the dictator that had nothing to do with the attacks. In long, open up long-waiting Rothchild’s accounts and encourage the racism that got Trump elected. Hey, if you can trust a former reality show host who had a board game named after him who can you trust?
BTW, the Mideast War is the longest hot war in American history. And it will never end.
*klonk klonk ricochet*
Crass? Sure, but unless you hear the other side, your side will either remain quiet or way too vocal about half-baked, ignorant, xenophobic hate speech. Dialogue always counts, despite the bile that may rise. Talk with the bile, and may another 9/11 never happen again. One can only dream, with heartburn. The price to pay over mulling details.
So anyway, fear-mongering. V was released at the right time despite its curious audience wasn’t exactly ready for it. It was released five years after the 9/11 tragedy, and the USA was polarized. Some kept weeping, others kept their stocks clean and ready to see action…somewhere. According to my myopic view, no one wanted to talk about the fallout into the future. Everyone was still too busy chewing on their nails.
Want to know the crushing part? Blocks upon blocks of prime real estate have been obliterated and rebuilt in Israel, Syria, Jordan, Iran and elsewhere in the Mid East over and over again. But once it hits home people snap awake. Takes a bit of time, but it inevitably goes down.
That’s kind of the message behind V: such deliberating can only go so far. And once it does, you missed the plot. The novel was already published; took months to finish the book. Too late to dog ear the page. Too late to pause. V‘s message is unfortunately timeless. Now don’t laugh, the tenor of V is akin to a line from the original Star Trek.
“I’ve found that evil usually triumphs. Unless good it very, very careful.”
Thanks for the philosophy, Bones.
But really, that’s true. Malice creeps, and can be very insidious. That’s how Hitler took control of Germany and then most of Europe. People like Alexander The Great with his bravado haven’t existed for a long time. Nero did play the fiddle, but not while Rome burned. He ran from the city to the hills only to be strung up later. Creeps, seldom a supernova.
Yeah, V is a cautionary tale about how power corrupts and can also be embraced out of fear. Fear of order falling apart and all the First World luxuries falling along with it. V is a 21st Century take on the classic “man on the white horse” theory. But with more knives and explosions. Dunno what Orwell would’ve made of this movie, but I doubt he’d sleep well after watching it.
An Interweb resource claims (better than I can eloquate) that in some cultures, white horses stand for the balance of wisdom and power. In others, like Christianity (“Strength Through Unity, Unity Through Faith”), the white horse is a symbol of death. The horse is a universal symbol of freedom without restraint, because riding a horse made people feel they could free themselves from their own bindings.
That is the world of V in a nutshell. Sutler’s reign is preferable to the crumbling of social order beyond Albion’s shores. Sure, British social structure sucks, but it sure beats civil war. Or not eating. Or being without the telly. Keep the public docile, so England may prevail. Ugly.
While watching V (for the second time, mind you. This time uder a microscope), my brain kept poking me about a short story I once read by sci-fi scribe extraordinare Harlan Ellison. “Asleep: With Still Hands.” To keep it quick, the plot illustrated that society cannot evolve without conflict. V is the fly in the ointment, hellbent on irritating Sutler’s England to devolve into revolt.
This is where V‘s story begins. Never have I seen a flick where the backstory is so vital to the active plot. Funny thing, though. The backstory creeps in the background just enough to make this audience glue its attention to the active action on the screen. As soon as Evey breaks curfew and encounters the “Fingermen…” That term alone alerts us all to that this is decidedly not Merry Ole England of history. We now have a UK with a secret police. It is to tremble, and now we know where we’re coming from. And into.
V is a polite Orwellian nightmare. First we’ll hear your impotent case en toto. Then we’ll shoot you. This kind of arrangement smells preferable to Birkenau. Still, minus the overt allusions to totalitarianism, you get the edge that all is not right here. There is anxiety, a looming sense of “being caught.” The creeping fear that clouded the US public’s judgment back in 2001 became manifest in V‘s world. The populace lives in both fear an indifference. Hell, our way is better than the “other’s” way, but we’re wearier for it. A docile people does not a healthy society make. Like V says, “People should no be afraid of their government. The government should be afraid of the people.” Sutler and crew are indeed afraid of their people. All they need a voice to scream it as so. That’s why V is labeled a terrorist. Of course he’s not. He’s a revolutionary.
V toes a very thin line running the gamut as social commentator, heavy-handed naysayer and simple cinematic entertainment. It’s the anti-hero thing again. You’re not really sure you can get behind him, despite his motives. An odd twist of the movie is that it’s hard to see if V’s crusade is played out of a sense of justice or revenge. Since there is this blur it spins the mystery of his motives ever deeper. Makes for delicious conflict.
One must give respect for Weaving as our crusader. Best put: Agent Smith as an avenging hero? Yes. Yes indeed. I’m as surprised as you are. The sinister Smith as a gallant, Errol Flynn-esque hero fighting the good fight for freedom against a non-digital regime? You see it here.
Which is curious since Weaving was a last minute replacement for James Purefoy, who dropped out of the production after six weeks of filming. IMDB claims he quit due to issues wearing the Guy Fawkes mask. Whatever. Due to the Wachowski connection via V‘s script came on in a pinch, loaning his voice to parts of the first act and taking over for the remainder.
And “taking over” is a apt phrase. As scary as Agent Smith was, his V is just as charming. For a guy who wears a creepy, smiley-faced mask for the duration of the film, he sure can emote with nary a wink. Weaving’s body language impressively defines V in spite of or thanks to that mask. Weaving’s performance is like a dark mime. We learn to like him, but since the face is always masked we have hard time trusting him. Until he physically emotes. Best example of this acting is in the final act when V is injured. We can hear and see his pain, and it is palpable, but we still don’t see his face. But we see his face.
And let’s not forget this: V’s monologues are elegant, and the flipside to the willfully unwitting and naive Evey’s screeching. Portman is Weaving’s ideal foil. A young woman entrenched in the System that “supports” her yet vaguely aware all is not well. Minus the studied histrionics, Portman plays everywoman rather well, with an acceptable English accent to boot. Evey portrays what I’ll call “guilty victim.” A strong but damaged woman who adheres to the power structure if only to put away the old one and all its pains. She knows Britain is f*cked, and tries to keep that notion in the back of her mind, no matter how appealing the opposite could be towards getting in touch with reality. No matter how nasty it is. Better to feel something than nothing at all. Think we’ve all been there, shaved head or no. We ride on Evey, we follow V.
On the other side…
Ironic casting Sir John Hurt as as the High Chancellor. Of course there are plenty of clever nods to the film version of 1984. And having Winston Smith cast as Sutler is delightfully on the nose. Hurt’s character only appears as a talking head on a giant screen for almost all of the film, hair closely stylized to resemble Hitler’s. Ultimately his rich voice is character, from is far but sinister, confident and authoritarian. It’s fear that Sutler screams as dogma, almost clownish. He’s not Big Brother. He’s more like the fear-mongering demagogues you see nightly on the cable news broadcasts. It sorta makes for the best kind of villain: more presence than flesh, even though Sutler is really nothing more than the monster under the bed. Look how his cabinet cowers before him; they’re more worried about their job security than their freedom. The voice of the republic, for the republic but merely a voice. Only Fox News is less scary as dictating what “must” be said. All weak spines from his chosen few. Disturbing, and all too plausible.
An aside, but maybe very telling. After seeing V twice I harbored a belief that a great deal of V‘s cinematic world’s references of UK culture and history was lost on US test audiences. Guy Fawkes’ Day for instance. Or what the Old Bailey is. Or even Thatcherism. Of course liberties were taken with the source material (if only to grease the wheels in the name of Anglo/American cinematic entertainment). Then again, too much British in an American action film might’ve turned off the more culturally ignorant US audiences. Just sayin’.
Here’s what’s up. An essential piece of V‘s being is a twisted version of a near ancient society wrapped up in symbolism only third to the Chinese and Meso-American peoples. Sure, most Americans have a vague understanding of their country’s history, but it ain’t really based on bowing to symbolism and the rites that may ensue. Which I why I enjoyed the police procedural B-plot against the less drab but still rather formulaic A-plot “crusade.” V’s mission is not just one of revenge but of message. A rallying cry. That kind of motive has a certain hole. Like in the original Matrix, not everyone is ready to be freed. And since V’s most visible targets are symbols of an old, maybe better past, the rabble that grew up in this nightmare just might not give two sh*ts about his mission. Same could be said for American audiences who think that the Old Bailey is a pub and Parliament is just a cigarette with a wider margin. Not every mission earns a following, despite what the film dramatically points act come the end. There be a sinister creeping afoot…
That being said, Rea is the “absent” star here. His Finch’s empathy never wavers from feeling real, from duty to mystery to reality. He knows from day one something’s rotten in London, and had known it all the while. This V case provides the opportunity to sift through the dross and understand how he came to cow before that blowhard Sutler. He’s the yin to V’s yang. And an earthier choice against our flamboyant, swashbuckling, titular hero. If one considers it, Finch’s investigation parallels V’s terrorist acts. Both want to get to the meat of the matter. Both sacrifice life and limb over sworn duty. The only diff’ is that Finch’s path is one of direct intrigue, where V is nothing but intrigue. Who would you follow? Right, the beleaguered inspector. It’s his foil that make’s the story work. Comedy versus tragedy. It works every time. Kinda like Nair; strips it all away.
Another (and hopefully final) thing about V that I really dug was the clever editing. There’s a lot to digest in the dystopian world full of bad food, corrupt cops, curfews and media saturation for the sake of all hail. It better look seamless, and it does. Big pat on the back to Martin Walsh, the editor. What could have been something out of 10-year old’s bedroom flowed. Those who are recurring readers here know that apart from pacing, crappy editing is my big bugaboo. Make stuff jarring, it f*cks with your attention span, as well as clouds the story. Not with V. Everything falls into place neatly, and sometimes often into sub-place. The trips to Larkhill. Valerie’s story. What V’s true motive is. Lotta grace there. Walsh allows just enough breathing room for the audience to take it all in.
Until the third act. Now it’s catch-up time.
I hate this. When a dense plot needs a resolution far too many directors do a cram session. Sadly, V spills out as no different. We got a bit too much exposition in the third act, explaining everything. Literally everything. It’s a Readers’ Digest version of their abominable Condensed Books (you Millennials should be grateful for not being exposed to these anomalies of soft literature. Praise Audible). This was where the story gets muddled. It all makes sense, but you better take notes to track it down. A flurry of lines try to wrap up and hour and 55 minutes of action and social commentary can be exhausting, if not distracting to follow. Felt like the SATs minus the blue book. Crap in a hat.
So that’s it. V was overall a quality waste of a Saturday afternoon. We had action. We had drama. We had political intrigues. We had swords. We had a drop of mental science smudge the forehead of any thinking person still smelling the stink of spilt jet fuel on their tongues. More than all of that, we got a flick that toed the line between political statements and action/mystery tale in a quite satisfying way.
Back in 2006 when I caught V it charged me. It was like every time some bullying force tried to bludgeon me into submission a part of me screamed, “No! I’m right!” Naive? Yep. Unrealistic? Maybe, maybe not.
Fast forward to now. Does the sh*t stink? Yep. What can I do?
Write this blog. But don’t take any faith in it.
“The first duty of a man is to think for himself.” – José Marti
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. If you’re a thinking person, you will be stony in your viewing. If you’re not, you vote with crossed fingers.
- “Fear got the best of you…”
- Didja notice how heavily armed the law enforcement was here? No nightstick wielding bobbies in this London.
- In the comic it was Chancellor Susan, not Sutler. Perhaps a swipe at Thatcher?
- “Put the sword away.”
- Books. Always the enemy.
- Always, always, always cut the red wire. Unless you shouldn’t.
- “You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it.”
- There appears to be an air about the vacant telly-watching rabble that habitually tunes in a drops out that is bored, dulled but also aware all is sh*te. Yet they won’t shut Big Brother off.
- What is it about shorn heads that scream both subjugation and defiance at the same time?
- “Are you a Muslim?” “No, I’m in television.”
- A part of me feels that the best part of the movie is the “movie within the movie” regarding Valerie’s plight.
- Despite V being the director’s debut film, he sure has confidence and a feeling of execution with purpose.
- “God is in the rain.”
Zack And Miri Make A Porno because food stamps only go so far.