V for Victory 

Matrix makers triumphantly translate dystopian comic from page to screen.

There are three works that are largely credited with bringing comic books out of the spandex-hero ghetto and into mainstream acceptance as a serious art form: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and two works by Alan Moore, The Watchmen and V for Vendetta.

The Dark Knight Returns served as Tim Burton's inspiration for his Batman movie, which, for better or worse, ushered in the modern comic-book flick. Many have tried to film The Watchmen, only to have the unfilmable project collapse. Now screenwriters Andy and Larry Wachowski, flush with clout after The Matrix trilogy, have succeeded in bringing V for Vendetta to the big screen. But Moore, feeling rightly burned after the debacle that was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, has prominently and adamantly disassociated himself from the film. The famously willful and aggressively strange writer, considered by many to be the kind of genius that comes along once in a generation, is probably going to wish he had allowed his name in the credits alongside artist David Lloyd, because V for Vendetta has survived the transition to the big screen with its bite intact.

Set in a post-apocalyptic Britain ruled by a fascist government -- recognizable for its red and black color scheme and for the fact that the leader appears to his cabinet on the big screen from the Macintosh 1984 commercial -- the movie begins with Evey (Natalie Portman) being saved from the clutches of the abusive secret police ("Fingermen") by a Guy-Fawkes-mask-wearing antihero (Hugo Weaving) who goes by the codename V and proceeds to wreak epic explosive mayhem to the tune of the 1812 Overture.

The character is Batman's mirror image -- an anarchist who lives in an abandoned underground station surrounded by the artifacts of culture banned under the current regime. Naturally, the powers-that-be label him a terrorist and bring the full power of the total surveillance state to bear against him. The film's excellent second act juggles the efforts of Detective Finch (Stephen Rea) to track down the "terrorist" and V's plan to eliminate everyone who knows his true identity -- who are coincidentally the same people responsible for his transformation into anti-superhero. Moore fans will find many of the original's gags and digressions intact (the "Valerie" subplot appears practically verbatim; even the rat hole in Evey's cell has been lovingly reproduced), but the chronology has been scrambled and the ending given major (and not entirely successful) surgery.

But the changes ultimately don't matter. This is far and away the best film the Wachowskis have made. Matrix fans expecting a CGI "whoa!"-fest will instead get a dark meditation on the Enlightenment question of the state versus the individual. The Wachowskis' penchant for sermonizing exposition, which overwhelmed the second and third Matrix movies, works much better when they have something relevant to talk about.

A lot of people are going to hate this movie, and most of them will be on the right side of the political spectrum. The Internet brownshirts have already been loosed, and V's C4 suicide belt will provide ready ammunition. But seeing Natalie Portman waterboarded and a Bill O'Riley lookalike as the mouthpiece of dictatorship should give audiences plenty to talk about as they drive home after their popcorn munch. William Burroughs said, "Success will write apocalypse across the sky," and as the film's closing image of exploding fireworks suggests, success is spelled with a V.

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