“Remember, remember
the fifth of November,
the gunpowder treason and plot.
I know of no reason
why the gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.”

Four centuries after Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the British Parliament, a mysterious vigilante going only by the name of V has decided to finish the job. After years of war and plague, England has become a totalitarian state where all but the most basic freedoms are gone. Dissidents are routinely imprisoned, tortured and executed, and even worse horrors are committed in the name of order. Thus rises V, taking aim at the government and returning its most powerful tool, fear, against itself. “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”

“V for Vendetta” is an absolutely incendiary work; it’s incredible it was produced and released by a major studio. Having a terrorist as your protagonist is gutsy enough, but the filmmakers actually manage to make you root for him to blow up Parliament. The movie is full of creepy echoes of 9/11, the War on Terror, Fox News, etc. But that just goes to show how History repeats itself, because Alan Moore’s original comic book series was written in the 1980s and dealt with the ghosts of World War II, the fear of a nuclear conflict and the rise of Margaret Thatcher.

“V for Vendetta” was written by Andy and Larry Wachowski and directed by James McTeigue, who previously collaborated with the brothers on the Matrix flicks. That trilogy’s anti-establishment philosophy is obviously still going strong, but there’s also some of Bound in here, surprisingly enough. The lesbian subplot was already in the comics, but the Wachowski have enhanced it, suggesting that the limitation of gay rights is the first step in the government’s eradication of personal liberties. The film also puts more emphasis on the thematic ties with “1984” (the Leader is made almost literally into Big Brother, ranting down from giant screens), “Le Comte de Monte-Cristo” (the ultimate revenge story) and Batman (with the idea that a symbol, a mask, is more powerful than a man). Even the Sex Pistols and Benny Hill are referenced!

I’ve mostly written about the thoughts “V for Vendetta” provokes, but as literary and complex as it is, it also packs more visceral thrills, notably one of the most brutal and visually stunning action scenes I’ve ever seen – think of an insane cross between the climactic swordfight in “Yojimbo” and The Matrix‘s bullet-time. “All you got is those bloody knives!”

Most entertaining is the genius performance by Hugo Weaving, who’s always hidden behind a mask but manages to give V tremendous personality only with his voice. As V’s reluctant sidekick Evey, Natalie Portman (“Damn, Natalie, you’re a crazy chick.”) is amazing as well, going through disturbing transformations through the course of the film – and I’m not just talking about getting her hair shaved. “V for Vendetta” never struck me as an emotional tale, but Portman’s heartbreak and tears got to me.

There’s no doubt that there will be many different interpretations (and misinterpretations) of the film’s message. Personally, I don’t think it’s actually glorifying terrorism. Yes, it seems to condone a specific act of terrorism in a specific context but even then, it’s ambiguous whether we should feel good about it. In many ways, V is a monster. A monster created in reaction to monstrous circumstances, sure, but still a monster. It’s not the bombings or the calls for chaos and revolution that push him into becoming such a sinister figure in spite of his noble intentions. It’s how far he’s willing to go to wake people up, how twisted and devious his methods are…

I’m intentionally being vague, but you’ll see what I mean. It’s quite fascinating how, like in Fight Club, the initially sympathetic antihero goes to such extremes that in the end you’re not sure what to think. And that’s a good thing: art shouldn’t give you answers, it should make you ask questions.

Hey! Said my name is called disturbance
I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants
Well, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s no place for a street fighting man