Pretentious 'Vendetta' fails to sustain its momentum

Natalie Portman stars in this futuristic tale of a repressive regime.
The totalitarian saga "V for Vendetta" scores well enough in its first hour as it works its way through the alphabet, earning a D for daring and an E for erudite compared to most action-oriented spectacles.
But the movie loses focus midway through, the tone shifting from silly but smart to just silly, with the movie meriting a P for pretension as it tries to comment on current world affairs and a T for tediousness as it drags on far longer than the story deserves.
Andy and Larry Wachowski, creators of "The Matrix" movies, wrote the screenplay based on David Lloyd's 1980s graphic novel, and the result feels like an extension or philosophical cousin of the siblings' sci-fi trilogy.
"V for Vendetta" lands somewhere between the neo-noir freshness of the original "The Matrix" and the indecipherable bombast of the two sequels.
First-time director James McTeigue, a Wachowski brothers prot & eacute;g & eacute; as assistant director on "The Matrix" movies, effectively creates an image of Britain under the government's boot heel.
Portman upstaged
Natalie Portman makes for a strong-willed heroine casting off complacency to rebel against a repressive regime, though she's generally upstaged by "Matrix" co-star Hugo Weaving as the title character of "V for Vendetta," even though he spends the entire movie concealed behind a Guy Fawkes mask.
For those unfamiliar with Fawkes, the movie opens with a quick history lesson, retelling his failed attempt to blow up London's Parliament in 1605 in protest against the government. Fawkes was caught and hanged, though he became something of a folk hero for centuries of citizens with gripes against the establishment.
"V for Vendetta" is set in a near future where xenophobic reactionaries have seized control of Britain to stomp out homosexuals, Muslims, the diseased and other "undesirables." Individual rights and personal freedom are sacrificed for severe law and order, and people are subject to the whims of a vicious secret police that can haul them off to "reclamation" facilities on a whim.
Evey (Portman), a go-fer for the state-censored television service, is saved from ravagement at the hands of the police by V, who from behind his Fawkes mask and black cape flamboyantly spouts Shakespeare and carries out a one-man campaign of terrorism against the government.
Beginning with an explosive display on Nov. 5, the anniversary of Fawkes' foiled "Gunpowder Plot," Evey is drawn over the following year into V's plans to make the ultimate statement against the government and impel the populace to rise up in revolution.
Revealing histories
With overt references to "The Count of Monte Cristo," the filmmakers lay out Evey and her mentor's personal histories, raising questions as to whether a quest for justice or a thirst for revenge is driving V.
Weaving, best-known as the unctuous Agent Smith in "The Matrix" movies, is a gleeful dynamo, infusing V with mad passion and a real sense of tenderness, no easy task from behind a crazy mask.
Portman is at the center of some disturbing sequences whose images recall the Holocaust. Able support is provided by Stephen Rea as the deadpan, industrious cop tracking V and Stephen Fry as a showy TV personality who's a friend to Evey.
With fine irony, John Hurt -- who played the tragic romantic hero in a version of Orwell's "1984" -- here is the equivalent of Big Brother.
Lloyd's graphic novel was a response to the conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, while the movie makes a rather muddled attempt to extrapolate from today's state of affairs how a totalitarian society might evolve.
Still, the movie strikes an uneasy nerve because you're clearly rooting for the terrorist.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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