The comic world is one of superhuman powers, nonstop battles and earth-shaking explosions. But the futuristic thriller V for Vendetta is something altogether different.
The differences that distinguish comics featuring costumed heroes from graphic novels, especially those by Vendetta co-creator Alan Moore, are in-depth emotional content, adult themes and story arcs that spread out for miles. Vendetta is the stuff of good literature, say its devoted fans, which makes watching director James McTeigue's hit-and-miss movie a disappointment.
V for Vendetta is set in near-future London with a clear nod to current concerns over eroding civil liberties in America. A fascist government led by Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt) rules with fear, strict curfews, a vicious police force and platoons of soldiers watching over the frightened populace.
Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) is a pretty young woman with a grim past. Her parents were political activists executed for crimes against the government. But her life changes after crossing paths with V (Hugo Weaving), a mask-wearing, bomb-wielding terrorist out to topple Britain's totalitarian government.
They become an unlikely pair, beauty and a beast — V is disfigured, hence the mask — committed to the impossible task of revolution.
Their adventure promises plenty of fireworks.
Voices are everything in Vendetta. Weaving, who replaced James Purefoy early in production due to Purefoy's trouble adjusting to V's mask, reveals a whispery tone creepy enough to make one's hairs stand up.
V wears a mask and a long cape like many classic heroes. His distinguishing garb is a wide hat, a wig of long black hair modeled after 17th-century martyr Guy Fawkes and throwing knives. The costume is flashy but constraining. There's not much Weaving can do.
V is part villain but mostly hero, which makes him as convoluted as the film. The mask says everything about him, yet reveals nothing meaningful at the same time.
Once you get past the colorful trappings — Weaver's sinister voice and his dramatic black-on-black clothes — there's nothing left to hold one's attention. His slashing "V," a blood red symbol scrawled across the alleys of London, stands for "void."
Portman disappoints with a shrill voice that's a shade less lovely than the English Rose she's supposed to be. Granted, her cheekbones look extra chiseled once her hair is shaved midway into the story.
While she might not claim a flashy costume like her co-star, Portman's performance is the equivalent of playing dress up. Her trademark winsome qualities, best seen in the comedies Beautiful Girls and Garden State, have been replaced by faux toughness. The genre cred she flashed in her debut film, the snazzy crime thriller The Professional, is missing.
Portman looks good, but everything about V for Vendetta looks good. She lacks emotional weight, a necessity for a heady thriller.
As Britain's fascist leader, Hurt claims a booming voice that shakes the rafters with hatred. The irony of his scene-stealing performance is its containment to large video monitors.
Displaying a grey mustache and goatee that suits his aged face well, Hurt's presence boosts Vendetta with bonus intelligence the same way Ian McKellen's repeat performances as the villainous Magneto make the X-Men adventure movies better. The film's most crippling flaw is Hurt's lack of screen time and a too-brief confrontation with V.
Brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski took numerous liberties adapting the lengthy V for Vendetta into a single feature film, which makes the lack of a movie-worthy climax surprising. Subplots involving the government-sanctioned deaths of hundreds of thousands people and murdered political leaders pile up like gridlock.
James McTeigue, who worked with the Wachowskis on the Matrix films as an assistant director, fails to get a grip on the material. Like many blockbuster-era filmmakers, McTeigue has technique to spare.
With its rooftop explosions and back-alley battles, Vendetta looks great. But his 1984-inspired tale of crimes and punishments, one McTeigue begs you to take seriously, is more sloppily pieced together.
To the credit of McTeigue and the Wachowskis, it's a noble effort to attempt an action fantasy that makes people think, something along the line of Batman Begins and X-Men 2. Others should follow their lead. Vendetta would earn more forgiveness if its action made up for its intellectual misses.
There's no point to someone wearing a long black wig, a mask, a wide hat and carrying throwing knives if you're not going to let him loose. McTeigue confuses non-action with philosophizing, an unforgivable offense for moviegoers looking for a rollicking good time. Grade: D