by Steve Habrat
Among the superhero movie elite is without question director James McTeigue’s politically charged 2006 film V for Vendetta, based off of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. Heavily critical of oppressive, war hungry governments who lie to their citizens and control through fear, it is very easy to read V for Vendetta as an attack on the ultra right wing extremists. Even if you do not quite agree with the politics of V for Vendetta, the film still has plenty to offer in the action and suspense department. Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix boys) penned V for Vendetta, so you know you are in for one hell of a thrill ride when the bullets, knives, and fists start flying. Despite the heaping amount of praise I give this film, I do think it does have its fair share of flaws which cause it to stumble during its second act, especially when much of the focus is pulled off of the liberal-minded vigilante V, a monstrous experiment that backfires on all of those who were responsible. The story is so busy and tries to juggle so much at one time that you may find yourself hitting the rewind button out of confusion, at least on your first viewing. Things do clear themselves up a bit after revisiting the film a few times but certain points are still murky. Even so, you have to applaud the film’s reluctance to simplify itself, which is always invigorating in a superhero film.
The year is 2020 and much of the world is ravaged by civil war, disease, unrest, and chaos. Great Britain is under the control of a fascist Norsefire party, who act as a sort of Big Brother type. One evening, British Television Network employee Evey Hammon (Played by Natalie Portman) decides to make a trip to the home of her boss, Gordon Deitrich (Played by Stephen Fry), despite the government curfew that is firmly in place. The streets are partoled by “Fingerman,” a secret police force who takes orders from High Chancellor Adam Sutler (Played by John Hurt). Evey ends up bumping in to several “Fingerman,” who then attempt to rape and beat her but she is saved by a mysterious man in a Guy Fawkes mask. This man, who calls himself V (Played by Hugo Weaving), proceeds to take Evey to a rooftop that overlooks the Old Bailey, which he then proceeds to destroy. The next days, the Norsefire party attempts to cover up this attack but V infiltrates the BTN and takes credit for the attack. He then encourages the citizens of Great Britain to rise up against this tolterian force that oppresses them and join him on November 5th, 2021, outside the Houses of Parliament and watch as he destroys it. Evey ends up bumping into V as he is fleeing the BTN and she narrowly saves his life, but it is all caught on camera. With no other alternative, V takes Evey to his underground hideout where she slowly begins to understand what V is trying to accomplish. She also learns about his horrific past inside a concentration camp called Larkhill, one set up by the Norsefire party. Meanwhile, lead inspector Eric Finch (Played by Stephen Rae) is hot on V trail but he ends up discovering more than he bargained for.
Certainly not the easiest film to briefly sum up due to the fact that there are tons of moving parts that allow the story to keep chugging along, V for Vendetta certainly is a rich and hearty thriller that more than satisfies. The first forty minutes of the film are absolutely glorious and flawless, with plenty of mind-bending action sequences and slow mounting suspense to keep you glued to your seat. The infiltration of the BTN by V seems like something Christopher Nolan would have concocted in one of his Batman films with closed-quarters action that would have been right at home in The Matrix. Then things switch from relentless action into more of a political thriller and character drama. The second half of the film is certainly interesting, especially when we get to hear about the origin of the Norsefire party and how V was molded into a Shakespeare-quoting gentleman who prefers to slay his victims with knives and ideas. It is here that the narrative tries to cram in too much and things begin to get tangled up in its own story. There are so many characters to try to keep track of that the exhaustion carved into lead inspector Finch’s face says it all. Yet when things finally do come together, or at least when we can finally put all the puzzle pieces in place, it does knock you off your feet. In a way, this is a positive because the more times you see V for Vendetta, the more that it chooses to reveal, making it one that you could happily add to your film collection.
Another unusual approach in V for Vendetta is never allowing the audience to get a glimpse of the V’s face. We learn that V was horribly disfigured in a fire and that he also can take quite a bit more punishment than the normal human being, a result of experiments that were conducted on him in Larkhill. V keeps his scarred face hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask and allows his personality to come alive in eloquent and poetic dialogue that pours from the small slit in the mask’s mouth. He is mildly pretentious in the way he quotes Shakespeare, enjoys high art, and swoons over The Count of Monte Cristo, a film he can quote line by line. His underground lair is walled with books as thick as bricks, shrines to individuals who were deemed “unfit” by the Norsefire party (a lesbian woman who was in a cell next to V while he was in Larkhill), and accented with classical tunes that pour forth from his jukebox of 100 songs, none of which V has ever danced to. Weaving has his work cut out for him in selling V to the audience but he does it with human grace. I enjoy the fact that V is meant to represent all of us and I loved the fact that my imagination ran wild with what he looked like. We only ever get a glimpse of his hands, which are red, swollen, and peeling, grotesque but tragic, even more so when Evey sees them and V quickly covers them up so he doesn’t offend her.
Then we have Portman’s Evey, who has to speak in a faux British accent that does come off as fake from time to time but Portman’s character is caught in so much conflict that you barely notice. She is a powerhouse when she has her hair shaved off in one of the film’s more intense moments. She morphs from a conformed member of the Norsefire society into a cold, steely liberator with eyes that are made of fire, perhaps the same flames that baptized V. Her intimate moments with V, the ones where they speak of their pasts and V’s plot are touching, haunting, and hypnotic. Then we have Rae’s Finch, a loyal Norsefire party member who is beginning to question the party he has dedicated himself to. The more he uncovers, the more he begins to see that V is not the enemy. Another standout is John Hurt as Sutler, who is almost always seen on a giant screen that looms over the closest members of his cabinet. There is so much force in his voice when he snarls at those close to him that he needs to remind the people of Great Britain why they need him. Rounding all the main players is Fry is a closeted homosexual who fears his sexual orientation will have him jailed, but that is the least of his worries, and Tim Pigott-Smith as Peter Creedy, the scowling and slimy head of the “Fingerman.”
V for Vendetta has a shattering moment in the middle of the film when it flashes back to tell the story of Valerie (Played by Imogen Poots and Natasha Wightman), a lesbian who was disowned by her family and ultimately arrested by the government and thrown into Larkhill. The scene is fueled by so much raw emotion, anger, frustration, and ache that it still retains its punch every time you see the film. It is the highlight of the convoluted middle section of V for Vendetta, one that shows the true suffering at the hands of evil individuals who lack the right to judge their neighbor. It also acts as the push behind this liberal minded superhero outing. It is a call for tolerance and acceptance of all walks of life, something the far right refuses to do. Despite the longwinded politics of the middle portion of the film (trust me, it covers it all), the last act ties everything up in grand, fiery fashion, complete with a rousing fireworks display. The end battle scene between V and several members of the “Fingerman” is turned up eleven with slow motion spirals of V flying through the air and cutting down those who have caused him so much pain, V’s rage tied up with fluttering ribbons of blood cutting across the action. Yet it is the idea that together we can accomplish anything that will have you on your feet by the time the credits roll. It is the idea of universal freedom that allows V for Vendetta to stand as one of the true triumphs of the superhero genre.
V for Vendetta is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
One of the most controversial comic-to-movie-screen adaptations is without question Zack Snyder’s 2009 superhero epic Watchmen. To many comic book aficionados, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s stunning DC Comics graphic novel was considered un-filmable by many who have poured over the blood drenched pages. I have to admit that I fell into the camp that didn’t want to see Watchmen in movie theaters but I was left speechless when I saw the rhythmic trailer in the summer of 2008. Many film geeks consider Snyder a visual director who can’t properly handle a narrative, something that the graphic novel thrives on. So, did the un-filmable turn out to be filmable? For the most part, yes, Snyder took great care in bringing this incredible tale to the big screen, pining over the smallest details on every single page right down to the smallest brushstroke of color. It was gripping, philosophical, jarring, and gorgeous all in the same breath but what it truly lacked was accessibility. I attended the midnight showing of Watchmen with a group of my friends, several who had never read the graphic novel. I was so excited to have them see this movie but when we emerged after two hours and forty minutes, they were less than impressed. They didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I guess you have to read the comic to really get inside this one.
Without giving too much away about Watchmen, I’ll stick to the bare basics. Watchmen takes us to an alternate 1985, where the world is used to superheroes leaping across the rooftops of buildings and intervening with criminals of all sorts. Superheroes have been a part of daily life since 1938, when a small group of masked avengers known as the ‘Minutemen’ formed an alliance and started fighting crime. As the ‘Minutemen’ began to age, a new generation of crime fighters emerged called the ‘Watchmen’, a new fraternity that ultimately was outlawed by Richard Nixon. Nixon, however, used superheroes to win the war in Vietnam, which has led to multiple re-elections into the 80s. He primarily used the deadly Dr. Manhattan (Played by Billy Crudup), a real-life “Superman” who has gained incredible powers through an unfortunate accident and is now considered a living, breathing, and glowing government weapon. Watchmen begins with the aging hero The Comedian/Edward Blake (Played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) getting confronted in his apartment by an unknown assailant and being brutally murdered. The police wave the murder off as just a disgruntled old villain that came back to take revenge on The Comedian but masked vigilante Rorschach (Played by Jackie Earle Haley), who continues to prowl the streets even though superheroes are banned, suspects that there may be a bigger plot to wipe out former masks. Rorschach seeks out his old partner Nite Owl II/Daniel Dreiberg (Played by Patrick Wilson) and fills him in on his theory. Dan disregards Rorschach but begins warning other former heroes as a precaution. To make matters worse, the United States and Russia are on the brink of nuclear war.
There was no way for Snyder to bring Watchmen to the big screen without pissing off at least one or two fans. Along with his screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse, the crew makes a massive oops by tinkering with the grand finale that did send this fanboy into a tizzy. I was so disappointed that the ending was reworked, taking me a few days after seeing it to really get over my resentment. But then I got to thinking, “Well, if they would have kept the original ending, the film would have been infinitely longer than it already was”. Another aspect that outraged me about Watchmen was the fact that Snyder clipped out the comic-within-the-comic interludes that were found in the comic books. He did okay by releasing a companion DVD that told the story of the Tales of the Black Freighter but I desperately wanted this in the film itself. Once again, I understood that this would have added another half-hour or so to the runtime but I guess I would have sat through a five hour long interpretation of Watchmen if it was available. Don’t let these complaints fool you, I still loved this movie and it did live up to my expectations, which were huge, mind you. I thought there were several moments that were jaw-dropping, the coolest being the opening fight sequence that leads in to one of the most incredible opening credit sequences ever put on film. It has to be seen to be believed. If you have seen the film, even the most disgusted fanboy has to admit it was a spectacular and stirring moment for all.
While Watchmen does have some of Snyder’s trademark slow-motion-into-sped-up fight sequences, the film is interested more in the shattered American Dream and what it takes to bring about peace. Each hero in Watchmen has their own code for how the deal with crime, some believing that “dogs should be put down” while others think they should be turned over to the proper authorities. In the old days, the line between good and evil was as clear as day for the ‘Minutemen’, something the remaining members of that retired group look back on fondly. In the “present day” of Watchmen, things are not so black and white. While Watchmen is a superhero movie, it lacks an arch villain, at least one that really plagues each mask through the lengthy runtime. It is society itself that the group grapples with. Are the “good” citizens worth saving or should we just give in to a war that will ultimately consume us all? Watchmen takes a scary detour when Snyder pulls back the curtain on the Nixon administration, further hinting that we may not be able to trust our leaders in the face of annihilation. They may hand us over to a fiery death just to make peace, or at least fight back against the threat, or simply to save their skins. Each time I watch Watchmen, I still get chills when one of Nixon’s advisors tells him that if nuclear war occurs, the whole east coast will be wiped out and the winds will carry the radiation to New Mexico. Middle America will be okay, which is good news, all things considering. Tell me that is not powerful stuff.
Watchmen has been criticized for some of the performances that make up this mound of ideas. The standout is by far Jackie Earle Hayley’s Rorschach, a fedora-wearing bad ass who growls through his oily mask as he dispatches criminals in the most gruesome of ways. We see a good majority of the story through his ink blotches as he asks us if pedophiles, rapists, and serial killers should really be put behind bars. His simple answer is no but wait until he spouts of the complicated one. He will turn you to ice. Then we have Crudup’s disconnected Dr. Manhattan, a glowing God who single handedly wins Vietnam in about a week. Much of his character is CGI but his distant voice is what truly resonates. Malin Akerman shows up as Laurie Juspeczky/Silk Specter II, a leggy avenger who longs for the affection of her boyfriend Dr. Manhattan. Wilson’s Nite Owl II is appropriately lost, a flabby has-been who hides behind cartoonish spectacles and searches for an excuse to put on his old armor. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a knock-out as the slimy Comedian, a man who has made some poor choices in his life, laughed at human suffering, and vomited at the American Dream, all while firing his shotgun randomly into a disgruntled crowd of protestors who howl over the very idea of superheroes doing the job of the police. Also on deck is Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, a wealthy former-mask who was known for his speed, strength, and smarts. He is considered the intelligent man on the planet and he is a fascinating character, but Snyder brushes over him, which is very disappointing when it comes to the last act twist.
There is almost too much to be said about Watchmen and it truly is a difficult film to review because there is so much going on within it. There are so many ideas swirling around inside it that we almost loose focus of what the film is actually trying to convey, which is a bit disappointing. The big question here is what it takes to gain peace, but that is just one slice of the pie. I will say that at almost three hours, the film never has a dull moment. There is plenty of action, gore, and sex to keep the younger males busy while Snyder slyly whispers bigger questions into the ear of those willing to look closer. Watchmen also forces conservatism and liberalism to jump into the ring to see who will ultimately triumph. I’ll leave it to you to figure out who trumps the other. While it is impossible for me to cover all the ground that Watchmen covers in this review, I will finish by saying that I think Watchmen is a beautifully ornate study of the superhero. It is well spoken and hypnotic but also a bit bloated, but it still holds your attention throughout the entire ride. I also advise that you read the graphic novel before approaching the film because some of the smaller touches will make more sense. Not perfect but certainly very good, in my opinion, Watchmen stands as one of the best superhero movies out there, with tons of layers to peel back and explore for years to come.
Watchmen is available on Blu-ray and DVD.