Swashbuckling with a smile


The Wachowski Brothers, who made the intoxicating The Matrix and its two rotten sequels, wrote the screenplay for V for Vendetta. Once again they prove themselves our reigning masters of murk.

When it comes to brewing up trouble (rather than sorting it out) they're nonpareil. They mold this anarchistic fantasy, set in the near future, around their elusive strengths. Call it long, call it choppy, but also call it spectacular. This film succeeds at sustaining a jet-black-comic setup for voluptuous slashings and explosions.

The story is named for its British terrorist hero: a full-body burn victim who wields daggers and swords and wears the mask and costume of Guy Fawkes (the 17th-century Englishman who set explosives under the House of Lords). V blows up the Old Bailey on Guy Fawkes Day, and vows to do the same to Parliament one year later as he pipes The 1812 Overture throughout this movie's New-Old London Towne.

You've got to picture the two Wachowskis and their director, James McTeigue, squealing like three witches in Macbeth as they prepared this adaptation of the Alan Moore-David Lloyd graphic novel about a rabble-rousing vigilante at odds with a totalitarian England.

They must have chanted "Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and caldron bubble" as they chortled over the contemporary political equivalents of "Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,/ Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing" - chemical and biological weapons, state-controlled media, permanent censorship and curfews and a fascistic one-party system complete with Gestapo-like Fingermen.

V (Hugo Weaving) hides out in a lair filled with forbidden artworks. He listens to Julie London's aching, jazzy rendition of "Cry Me a River" on a swank stereo jukebox as his nubile young friend, prophetically named "Evey" (Natalie Portman), sleeps nearby. You may think of The Phantom of the Opera. But that's just one element of this heady melange. The Wachowskis quote directly from Macbeth and Twelfth Night, too - and from Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Hugo's The Man Who Laughs and (most prominently) Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo.

They alternately streamline, mainstream and embellish elements of the original story while transferring its reference points from Thatcherite England to a world that drifted deeper into villainy and chaos with the dragging-on of the Iraq War and the downfall of America. The Wachowskis' enemies are fear-mongering forces of repression. Their champions are men and women who've learned, like Kris Kristofferson, that "freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."

The filmmakers' goal may be nothing more (or less) profound than getting youthful audiences to dream wild. But that may be the essential lure of comic books and their more pretentious offspring, graphic novels, and their typically imperfect spinoffs, comic-book movies. Despite their narrative wobbles along the way, the Wachowskis and company hit their target through flamboyant and inventive imagery rather than the usual overpowering, overdone special effects.

This movie melds the glamour of old-fashioned swashbucklers, gothic fables and Monte Cristo-like revenge fantasies with punkish grunge and genocidal panics. It's for viewers who can savor the frisson of a painted smile glinting in the shadows from a fright mask and value a nightmare vision of English-speaking concentration camps.

The Wachowskis' secret weapon is their cast. At first it's jarring to hear V deliver virtuoso strings of alliteration based on the consonant "V." The smile on the mask is frozen, and his voice seems to come out of nowhere. But Weaving does a phenomenal job of insinuating flippant Errol Flynn or Robert Donat attitude into mere recitation. By the end, you wish the script had given him even more verbal razzle-dazzle.

Portman grows from pallid naivete into a tragic beauty as V's sometimes reluctant ally. The savagely histrionic John Hurt as the state's Chancellor and the bilious-to-bursting Tim Pigott-Smith as its Gestapo (or Finger) chief comprise a formidable two-man rogues' gallery. Stephen Rea brings an air of wounded conscience to the crucial role of an intelligent police inspector. And Stephen Fry contributes his curdled sauciness and warmth to the role of a TV host who defies the authorities by burlesquing the Chancellor.

That last bit plays out in slapstick, Laugh-In style, complete with Laugh-In-like music. The Wachowskis, like Tolkien, regard all of culture as a soup to be stirred and flavored to their taste. At a time when too many entertainers provide chicken soup for the soul, they deliver a chowder that spikes your palette, rattles your teeth and sticks to your ribs.


Podcasts featuring Michael Sragow are at baltimoresun.com/sragow.

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