'V' for verbose vigilante

'V For Vendetta" is based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd and, if nothing else, it sure is graphic. First-time director James McTeigue's big, bold imagery, with slashing reds and blacks, is a close approximation of the novel's look and feel.

But this is primarily a technical achievement. "V For Vendetta," even more so than with most graphic-novel adaptations, also arrives with a full arsenal of "ideas." Although the "Vendetta" comic as a continuing serial goes back to the early '80s and was published in full under the DC Comics banner in 1989, the movie version is obviously aimed at the here and now.

Set in the near future in an England ruled by tyrants whose party insignia bears a close resemblance to a swastika, "V For Vendetta" plays on our fears of a modern world gone mad.

Mysterious biological attacks on the water supply have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, secret police have the citizenry under full-time surveillance, news organizations only report government propaganda, and homosexuals and political dissidents have been rounded up and tortured in secret internment camps. The country's über-leader, played by John Hurt as an immense talking head on a digital TV screen, is an Orwellian nightmare. (Hurt played Winston Smith in the movie version of 1984. Guess he wanted to check out the dark side.)

Enter V (Hugo Weaving), the renegade savior in black flowing cape and Zorro hat who lives in an underground lair that resembles the Bat Cave. V wears a mask with a great big gargoyle smile that is meant to summon up the spirit of Guy Fawkes, who unsuccessfully attempted to blow up Parliament in 1605. This time, V means to get the job done right. Enlisting the assistance of a wary waif, Evey (Natalie Portman), whose dissident parents have been eliminated by the government, he carries out a series of terrorist assassinations in his yearlong countdown to the big bang.

There is no reason, of course, why graphic novels, or the movies adapted from them, should not be charged with ideas. But "V for Vendetta" comes on strong in a manner that is much closer to "The Matrix" than to Orwell. This is not surprising since the project was originally developed by the Wachowski brothers, who are also its credited screenwriters.

It's easy to see what attracted the Wachowskis to this material: It's dark and doomy and clogged with worlds-within-worlds. Like "The Matrix" movies, its futurism is conceived of in almost sado-masochistic terms - its torture scenes in particular. The cautionary political material may seem "daring," but I think it's just an elaborate form of window-dressing for an apocalyptic freak show.

The filmmakers have been careful to describe the movie as an open-ended vision that does not endorse mayhem and points no fingers in any particular political direction. But the contemporary references, which include US involvement in Iraq, are inescapable, and its drift is clear. V comes across as the most stricken romantic since "The Phantom of the Opera," albeit a phantom who is fond of saying things like "blowing up a building can change the world," or "beneath this mask are ideas, and ideas are bulletproof."

When he starts eliminating the bad guys on his list one by one, you may think for a moment that you're back watching "Munich," but the emotional high point of the movie is clearly meant to be the scene where Evey kisses V's mask and they dance together. In his ripest "Masterpiece Theatre" tones, V declares that "a world without dancing is a world not worth having." I guess we're supposed to think that anybody who can waltz like this guy can't possibly be a terrorist. Grade: B

Rated R for violence and language.

Sex/Nudity: 4 scenes of innuendo, 1 scene of a near rape, and 1 scene with nude bodies in a mass grave. Violence: 28 scenes. Profanity: 48 instances, including 12 harsh ones. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 8 scenes of smoking and/or drinking.

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