'V for Vendetta' or 'W for Wachowskis'?

Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving in 'V for Vendetta'

hide captionA clean-shaven Natalie Portman and a masked Hugo Weaving take on the fascists in 'V for Vendetta.'

Warner Bros.

The dark thriller with contemporary political overtones was adapted by the Wachowski brothers, of Matrix fame. But the authors of the graphic novel, written in the 1980s, have distanced themselves from the film, which follows a masked rebel battling a fascist state.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott. The film V for Vendetta is a dark, futuristic fantasy from the folks who made the Matrix. You'd think releasing a new movie by this team would be easy, since the three Matrix movies took in more than $1.6 billion. But V for Vendetta has had a tricky time getting to the screen.

The opening was postponed last year when London was rocked by a subway bombing that was much like a scene in the film, and the author of the graphic novel the movie's based on has disowned it. Bob Mondello says he understands that impulse.

BOB MONDELLO reporting:

The not-so-distant future. America has collapsed into civil strife, and Britain is led by a dictator who has clamped down hard on society, controlling the media, banning speech and assembly, and using thugs as enforcers. A sweet young thing named Evey falls afoul of the thugs after curfew one night and figures she's a goner when suddenly a rescuer materializes from the shadows looking very 17th century in a cape and Guy Fawkes mask and wielding a dagger.

(Soundbite of V for Vendetta)

MONDELLO: The rescuer turns out to be a terrorist, or freedom-fighter, depending on your point of view, who calls himself V. After regaling Evey with a speech of vivid verbiage virtually vibrating with V's, a fetish he thankfully abandons quickly, he treats her to a rooftop view of a building he's blowing up, then zips her home to an underground lair decorated with antiques, movie posters, and a jukebox playing jazz standards.

As mad bombers go, he's reasonably seductive as played by Hugo Weaving, that mask he never takes off notwithstanding. Evey is soon, though against her better judgment, so involved in his schemes that she's in deep trouble.

(Soundbite of V for Vendetta)

Unidentified Man (in Film): You've been formally charged with three counts of murder, the bombing of government property, conspiracy to commit terrorism, treason and sedition, the penalty for which is death by firing squad. You have one chance and only one chance to save your life. You must tell us the identify or whereabouts of Codename V.

MONDELLO: What to do? Go with the terrorist or with the fascist? In the movie, the year is 2020, so it'd be nice to report that Evey and everyone else sees perfectly what is going on, but not even hindsight is 20-20 in V for Vendetta. The graphic novel, written two decades ago, was a portrayal of Maggie Thatcher-style conservatism run amuck.

The movie's regime has been updated to reflect a later style of conservatism. Its Big Brotherish leader is a religious extremist who is homophobic, Islamaphobic, just generally phobic, really. The freedom-fighting terrorist hero, meanwhile, is sort of Batman by way of the Count of Monte Cristo.

The problem is that V for Vendetta borrows from so many sources, Creature from the Black Lagoon to real-life photos of Abu Ghraib, that even the filmmakers can't keep them all straight. By the movie's midpoint, the Wachowski brothers' screenplay has gotten so bogged down in back story that it takes 40 minutes for director James McTiegue to get back to the explosions that his 16-year-old target audience assumes will solve everything.

Those 40 minutes are mostly taken up with mistreating Evey, played by Natalie Portman, who it should noted suffers adorably and looks terrific with her head shaved, and they're also taken up with establishing that V can be duplicated ad infinitum by putting half of London in plastic V masks.

This is basically the same trick, you'll notice, that the Wachowskis ran into the ground in their last two Matrix movies when they also had hundreds of cloned Hugo Weavings running around. It has not become cleverer with time, alas, something that can also be said of V for Vendetta, in general.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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