Who is the man who hides his scarred face behind a mask? Hero or madman? Liberator or oppressor? Who is "V" -- and who will join him in his daring plot to destroy the totalitarian regime that dominates his nation? Natalie Portman stars as Evey, a working-class girl who only dreams of domestic bliss and raising a family, but after being figuratively drawn and quartered by the Government, she must determine if her potential savior, V (Hugo Weaving) -- a bold, charismatic freedom fighter driven to exact revenge on those who disfigured him -- has become the very menace he's supposedly fighting against. The authorities are not going to stand by while V plots to start an uprising, and send in Chief Inspector Eric Finch (Stephen Rea) to track down the renegade before civil unrest turns into a full-blown revolution.
So goes the story of 'V for Vendetta,' possibly the most politically-charged mainstream film to come out of Hollywood since the genre's golden age of the 1970s. Based on the incendiary graphic novel by Alan Moore, 'V for Vendetta' is a tough film to discuss without revealing its secrets and surprises. Yet it's not very difficult to see parallels between the United States government that ruled at the time Moore wrote the original graphic novel, and today's current political climate. Here is a film that, however slyly and subversively, rips apart the Right and makes no apologies, sticking a swift middle finger right up the arse of the Bush administration.
So it was a bit disconcerting to this fan that at the time of its theatrical release, 'V for Vendetta' was largely promoted on the backs of producers the Wachowski Brothers, who of course turned the sci-fi and action genres upside-down with 'The Matrix' trilogy, and not Moore. Granted, it was probably a wise marketing move on behalf of Warner, as Moore loudly decried the movie made out of his story, claiming it was being diluted to appeal to the mainstream, among other accusations. Even if you haven't read the graphic novel and only take the movie at face value, its fatal flaw may not be one of political backbone, but of a slavish devotion to the narrative style the Wachowski's pioneered in 'The Matrix.'
As directed by James McTeigue, 'V for Vendetta' is a film bursting with potential, at turns fascinating and frustrating, with some fantastic scenes and plenty of missed grips on good ideas. Perhaps McTeigue felt indebted to crib from the Wachowski's 'Matrix' films, for 'V for Vendetta' teeters on the edge of parody with its rigid melodramatic soliloquy/action scene structure. There is a very fine line between using extensive expositional dialogue to reveal the motives of characters and using it to explain their actions, and 'V for Vendetta' often crumbles under the weight of such verbal excess. Such dialogue, of course, was a staple of the 'Matrix' films, which often felt like talky Bergman films with a few action scenes mixed in for good measure -- so much so that some audiences left the theater wondering if they'd seen a sci-fi extravaganza or a political diatribe. 'V for Vendetta' stands uneasily on these wobbly legs, and perhaps a better integration of all the talk and all the action might have made for a more cohesive, emotionally satisfying work.
I would never dissuade anyone from seeing 'V for Vendetta,' however. Here is a movie far too ambitious and smart to be discounted for any narrative faults. It is also far more explicit in its sensibilities and confrontational in its stance than any recent "political" movie, outgunning even the passionate 'Syriana,' the sublimely beautiful 'Brokeback Mountain' and, thankfully, that crap piece of hackwork called 'Crash.' It could also be said that the sum of 'V for Vendetta' works better than each of its individual parts. Certainly, by its weak climax (I won't spoil anything for you, but it asks us to swallow some pretty unbelievable character and plot points) I was more affected by the overall nightmare quality of the future it imagined than by what actually happened onscreen. Still, I'd much rather see a film aim high and fail, than have it show no aspirations at all.
'V for Vendetta' hits Blu-ray a good 18 months after the HD DVD release. That hasn't stopped Warner from reusing the same transfer, so again we get an identical 1080p/VC-1 video transfer. My opinion of the image hasn't shifted from my original review of the HD DVD -- this is a very fine-looking presentation that faithfully reproduces the film's somewhat schizophrenic visual style. It's also not perfect, but contains enough moments of sweetness that it holds up quite well, even against the latest Blu-ray new releases.
Visually, 'V for Vendetta' is a tough film to assess. As is so common today, various digital tricks have been employed to tweak certain segments of the film to better tell the story. Most of the "Government" scenes, such as the Finch's interiors and anything involving Stephen Rea, tend to be desaturated and slightly overcontrasted. As such, colors are muted and whites can bloom. Detail is still generally good during these scenes, though the image can appear a bit soft. Again, this all appears intentional.
By contrast, the world of "V" and any shot meant to highlight Natalie Portman's beauty (which wouldn't be hard) can be scrumptious. Colors are more robust but still clean, and Portman's camera-ready features are always a lovely shade of orange. I also got off on the way the rich crimson of the Government's Nazi-esque iconography clashes in a positive way with the rest of the image, yet noise and compression artifacts are never a problem. Detail and depth to the image are also significantly improved here. Given the film's intended visual excesses, 'V for Vendetta' is a four-star transfer.
Not content to merely recycle the video, Warner also regurgitates the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/16-bit) from the previous HD DVD. Sadly, I was never that wowed by the audio on the original HD DVD, so this ranks as one of the lesser TrueHD tracks I've heard on Blu-ray (at least thus far).
First off, the biggest problem with the previous DVD release has been fixed here. Gone are most of the poorly balanced volume levels, with dialogue now more prominent in the mix, and no longer overwhelmed by the effects. This is doubly important in 'V for Vendetta,' as the film is so full of long, pontificating speeches and intricate monologues. Also boosted is dynamic range. Fine sonic details are more audible in the mix in Dolby TrueHD, such as the flap of V's cape or foley effects as innocuous as footsteps. In fact, clarity and attention to detail are occasionally truly amazing. Low end, too, is boosted and delivers some serious rumbling during the film's otherwise lackluster action scenes.
Surround use is less aggressive, however, and I wasn't quite as blown away by the intensity of the rear channels as I hoped. Certainly, there are some nice uses of discrete sounds and near-transparent imaging to create a very involving soundfield, but this is no 'Batman Begins.' There are also no issues with the source, or other deficiencies. I still am not blown away by this TrueHD track, but it still sounds pretty good.
When 'V for Vendetta' first hit standard DVD a couple of years ago, the extras seemed rather underwhelming -- no audio commentary or deleted scenes, which makes the back of the box look a little sparse. Yet, watching the multi-part featurette that is included here, I remain rather impressed as the material is a bit more incisive than usual, and I'd much rather have quality over quantity. (All the extras are presented in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video only, and the extensive subtitles match those offered on the main feature.)
'V for Vendetta' is an exciting, incendiary film that's brimming with passion and idealism. Unfortunately, it's also a bit of a dramatic mess and viscerally muted. Still, I'm glad filmmakers are beginning to embrace politics once again in mainstream cinema -- and loudly. This long-awaited Blu-ray release comes off just as strong as the now two-year-old HD DVD, with a very good transfer, pretty good Dolby TrueHD track, and solid supplements, including a BonusView-enabled "In-Movie Experience" track. 'V for Vendetta' is certainly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.