It may not be a rallying cry for an insurrection, but "V for Vendetta" does prove to be a gutsy and compelling anti-establishment drama in what appears to be the most aggressively conservative decade in politics since the 1950's. The origin of the story, a 1989 graphic novel by Alan Moore, was originally a targeted swipe at Thatcher-ism in the United Kingdom. Despite keeping the setting in this futuristic England, the filmmakers have adjusted certain scenes and dialogue to more pointedly make jabs at both the American-led war on terror and the current Bush administration.
If this was an independent film people wouldn't bat an eye, but it's a major studio picture with obvious money behind it and a somewhat fearless moral stance on a very provocative topic. At the end of the year 'Vendetta' probably won't make many Top Ten lists, nevertheless its by far the best domestic wide release film of the first few months of 2006 thanks mostly to its unabashed refusal to conform to the formulas of the increasingly homogenised products the movie industry churns out each week.
Admittedly on the surface 'Vendetta' is what it appears to be - yet another tale of an oppressive totalitarian society and the elements of rebellion led by an anti-hero with a dark past. Its generic science-fiction stuff and the film never entirely overcomes that or its pulpy comic book origins. Moore's original work wasn't one of his best efforts, yet he left a lot of the story much more ambiguous in nature which may split the original graphic novel's fans. On top of that, and despite Australian James McTiegue's name being attached, the film is a Wachowski siblings movie in tone with its over indulgence in self-important diatribes, occasional doses of showy but pointless action set pieces, and a slightly bloated runtime.
Yet despite its indulgences, it doesn't take away from its many strengths. The performances are rock solid across the board with Portman delivering her best work in years, and Weaving managing to portray a rich and distinctive character despite being behind a mask throughout all the film. Minor roles from the likes of Stephen Rea, John Hurt and Stephen Fry are equally forthright. Visually the film is stunning, lots of rich and dark scenes that look glorious whilst its strong moments of action whether it be buildings exploding or people marching in defiance, took my breath away - something that hasn't happened to me whilst watching a film in a long time.
Most importantly though is that its a well-crafted and well-thought out piece of entertainment, one that promotes debate more than cheap thrills. Much of the film is simply long conversations and plot/character interaction to the point that action scenes seem superfluous. Indeed the scene involving daggers that's shown repeatedly in the trailer stands out like a sore thumb as purely unnecessary and tacked on (not helped by being inserted in the already too long third act). The film never forgets that its brains and emotion come first and deliver some compelling themes to think about whilst at times, most notably the sequences where it harkens back to the comic, strike with real emotional resonance.
There's also a delightful sense of brashness to the whole thing. From the 1812 overture playing over a giant building destruction which inspires a sense of naughty glee, to the emotional highpoint - a subplot about Portman being captured and interrogated which essentially serves as the blueprint for the creation of a suicide bomber. The film is pretty hardcore and up front about its subject matter and stance. Is it left-leaning? You bet, but more importantly its refreshing in its honesty and bluntness.
As a very liberal guy I often get into disagreements with conservatives, but what frightens me most these days isn't those with different political viewpoints - its the people that throw around such bullshit labels as 'unpatriotic' to anyone who questions government policy of any kind. That's why 'Vendetta' is such a scary film in many ways. It doesn't resemble society as it is now, it is rather society the way it could be 10-15 years from now if we continue heading down a path we've been on the last few years - a path in which a very minor issue such as terrorism has been used to justify some heinous bungles and civil right violations by people on both sides of the political spectrum.
'Vendetta' on its own is a well made, in many ways familiar, but ultimately a strange little beast that will carve its own quite interesting albeit mostly forgotten little niche in the realm of modern cinema. Yet timing is everything and 'Vendetta' has smartly struck filmgoers at exactly the right time - delivering something that resonates far more now than it would have a few years ago. Major studio pictures can certainly be more creative, but they're rarely as bold as this.