If Zorro had gone to terrorist camp, taken courses in English elocution, assumed a penchant for zippy alliteration (a veritable "vichyssoise of verbiage"), and moved to a cavernous tomb decorated with pre-Raphaelite art and movie posters, well, you'd have V – the masked marauder of the smart, entertaining V for Vendetta.
Produced and scripted by the Wachowski brothers, the boys behind the dazzling Matrix and its sad-sack sequels, V for Vendetta is a swashbuckling thriller with a political edge. The film is adapted from the comic books written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd.
Set a couple of decades hence, in a bleak Britain ruled by a short, testy despot who addresses his underlings via giant, flat-screen TV, the movie offers dire portents for doomsayers forecasting democracy's demise.
The United States, we are told, has become "the world's biggest leper colony." England, recovering from apocalyptic viruses and destruction linked to evildoers, is now under the firm hand of Adam Sutler (John Hurt), a Hitleresque pipsqueak who probably grew up with a copy of 1984 under his pillow.
Phones are tapped. Books are banned. Homosexuality is forbidden. Television is controlled by the government. Food is rationed, and so is personal freedom. Nightly curfews are enforced by "fingermen" – secret police who think it their right to violate attractive young women out on the street after dark.
Which is how Evey (Natalie Portman), an assistant at a TV news show, first crosses paths with V (Hugo Weaving): She's in an alley encircled by goons, and he, wearing a hat, cape and grinning mask, comes to the rescue.
The relationship that ensues is a tricky one: part Stockholm syndrome, part Beauty and the Beast (there's a reason beyond mere disguise for V's porcelain-like visage), part freedom-fighting confreres, part couch potatoes. (A wonderful scene: the two curled up in V's Shadow Gallery lair watching a video of Robert Donat's The Count of Monte Cristo.)
Directed by the Wachowskis' protege James McTeigue in fitting tones of gray – with dashes of color, and humor – V for Vendetta also stars Stephen Rea as a top cop assigned to track down the terrorist V, who has blown up London's Old Bailey and is threatening to do likewise with Parliament. V's mask is a likeness of Guy Fawkes, the fabled 17th-century radical who plotted to explode Parliament and who became the namesake of a British holiday celebrated with fireworks. V sees himself as Fawkes' heir, with a similar mission: to topple a tyrannical regime and restore liberty. If innocent civilians die in the process, so be it.
In its more meditative (or, one could argue, pretentious) moments, V for Vendetta poses the question: Is terrorism ever justified? Is blowing up buildings in the name of freedom a good thing? What would George Bush make of all this? Or George Washington?
V for Vendetta gets hurried, and muddied, toward the end, but Portman, with her shaven head and her (pretty good) English accent, is never less than compelling. Weaving, his face concealed, uses his voice and body to powerful effect, and some fine Brits (Stephen Fry, Sinead Cusack, Tim Pigott-Smith) add heft to the comic- book scenario.
Speaking of which, it should be noted that V for Vendetta's cocreator, the English writer Moore, has taken his name off the credits. His disgruntlement, however, seems particularly nitpicky. The movie made from his comic is a lot of dark, Orwellian fun.