Vengeance is a cheap thrill

    V, the man from room five: Is he a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Thankfully — at least for those who intend only to be entertained — the question does not arise in the Wachowski brothers’ simplified version of the great graphic novel, “V For Vendetta.” These filmmakers aren’t content with allowing their audiences to make their own judgments about what they’ve seen, but instead force black-and-white movie morality upon them, explaining exactly who the hero is, and why the audience should root for him. The Wachowskis are known purveyors of such simplified characterizations, as in the biblically epic flops that succeeded “The Matrix.” In “V For Vendetta,” their adaptation of writer/wildman Alan Moore and illustrator David Lloyd’s incomparable 1988 comic work, all the complexity is drained from Moore’s depressing discussion of Margaret Thatcher-era conservatism, leaving a simple action film that doesn’t have anything new to say.

    As far as action films are concerned,“Vendetta” is brilliant enough. Director James McTeigue combines dystopian “1984” visuals with “bloody fancy karate gimmicks,” making for some fantastic entertainment right up the alley of “Matrix” fans. Other elements of that movie are here as well: the uncompromising, evil establishment; the nigh unstoppable, leaden-faced hero; and the mounting suspense as agents of the establishment hunt down the hero. It’s an easy recipe for a popcorn flick, and makes for a good one.

    The story follows V (Hugo Weaving), who plans to take vengeance on the fascist government that has enslaved the people of England. The clever V is culturally literate by Wachowski standards (able to recite some Shakespeare and enjoy jazz), and bombastic, with a revolutionary sentiment for any situation. Evey (Natalie Portman) is rescued from crooked cops by V and is forced to take residence in his secret lair, a repository of books, art and music — all banned by the ruling fascist party. The chancellor (John Hurt) is only a continuously livid face on a screen, commanding the secret police, the television programming, the ever-present surveillance and, of course, the detectives assigned to find and stop V. Finch (Stephen Rea), the lead detective, is about the only complex character in the film, slowly realizing the horrors of his own government while attempting to stop the single agent that could change it.

    Instead of addressing a futuristic endpoint of Thatcherism, as Moore’s original work does, the film makes a few parallels to media and government-inspired fear in the modern United States, with an O’Reilly-type TV anchor that mocks the “once-great” America and the war that ruined it. Really, though, the politics are just for show, to make the action a bit less of a guilty pleasure.

    The elements of Moore’s original vision that remain intact make for an intriguing suspense thriller, but where each of Moore’s characters had their own complex personalities (fascists are people too, you know) the film forces the characters into good guy/bad guy generalizations — a dangerous style of reasoning. It may serve most dumb action flicks just fine, but where there’s a hero who is an outspoken terrorist, that’s no way to play it. Moore chose the path of ambiguity, never quite deciding whether V’s efforts were justified, making his work a thoughtful classic. Blowing up Nazis, however, is nothing more than mindless entertainment — but in this case, it’s awesome mindless entertainment.

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