Fawkes you: One part 'Phantom,' two parts Moore


Fans who flock to V for Vendetta because they hear Natalie Portman is showing a lot of skin may be disappointed when they find out it's only the skin on top of her head. The movie has enough compensating factors, however, that you won't dwell for long on what's missing.

V for Vendetta is a newfangled, old-fashioned swashbuckler with as much political edge as last year's acclaimed dramas and the previous year's heralded documentaries. It's set in London in the near future when England is under the totalitarian rule of High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt), who rose to power by frightening the citizenry about the dangers of terrorism and such.

Sutler's mouthpiece is "The Voice of London," broadcaster Lewis Prothero (Roger Allam), who rails against the forces of "godlessness." He's an early victim of a man known as "V" (Hugo Weaving), a revolutionary who's never seen without his Guy Fawkes mask. He takes over the airwaves to announce plans to finish what Fawkes started in 1605, blowing up Parliament, come next Guy Fawkes Day, November 5. ("V" is also for the Roman numeral for five.)

Inspired by his favorite movie, The Count of Monte Cristo, V brandishes an assortment of swords, which work well against the guns of government lackeys. One night he uses them to save Evey Hammond (Portman) from being raped. The next day she helps him, turning herself into a fugitive, and he takes her to live in his underground lair. The setting, the mask, the potential romance all scream "Phantom"; but the politics are closer to Michael Moore.

Back stories include a detention center whose inmates became guinea pigs for biological warfare tests (another AIDS metaphor?) and the story of Valerie (Natasha Wightman), a film star punished for loving women. She had no regrets: "For three years I had roses and apologized to no one." (Expect V for Valerie t-shirts to become chic lesbian apparel.)

Searching for V while becoming more and more sympathetic toward his views are Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) and his assistant, Dominic (Rupert Graves). Stephen Fry pops up as TV star Gordon Deitrich, whose love is unable to speak its name.

V may be the most literate action hero ever. When he's not alliterating with V-words, he's quoting Shakespeare or coining such catchphrases as "ideas are bulletproof," "artists use lies to tell the truth" and "a revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having."

Based on the comic books and graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta was adapted by The Wachowski Brothers, but they left the directing to James McTeigue, who assisted them on the Matrix films. He does an excellent job for a novice on such a large-scale movie, and the Wachowskis' screenplay is probably their best ever.

V for Vendetta comes along at a time when I was despairing of seeing a good film from a major studio again. Although it's set in England with historical references that will mean little to most Americans, it quite obviously delivers a big "Fawkes You!" to the Bush administration.