"V for Vendetta" imagines a dire reality an ocean away that looks disturbingly like our own.

There he is in the tidy kitchen of his underground lair, humming through his ceramic mask to the bossa nova of Getz and Gilberto, when Natalie Portman's Evey walks in after a long slumber. And who wouldn't appreciate the zest of an uncooked yolk bursting in a pocket of toast after watching V (Hugo Weaving, though you never see him) blow up a government building and helping him escape his hijacking of the national television network? Why, you must be famished. Goodness, is that real butter? As a matter of fact, yes, I stole it from the evil chancellor's supply train.

These are close approximations of real dialogue and events from the movie. "V for Vendetta," like its hero, is not your everyday update of a comic book. It was written by the Wachowski brothers (and directed by James McTeigue), and it's a breath of fresh if slightly funky air after the tediously drippy, monochromatic esoterica that drowned the last two-thirds of their "Matrix" series. V, though he does tend to drone in the Wachowski mode, is a man maniacally free of his medication, and the movie is no more restrained.

V takes his symbolism and style from Guy Fawkes, a failed British revolutionary once burned in effigy during popular celebrations. As for his origins, V was born out of a futuristic 9/11-like disaster called St. Mary's, when terrorists unleashed a biological weapon on three separate locations in London, killing thousands. He was one of many common citizens rounded up to participate in Josef Mengele-style experiments designed, supposedly, to find ways to eliminate diseases (and therefore terrorism). The experiment failed, producing the superhuman V, who seeks revenge on the people he believes are responsible for not only his condition but also the sorry state of government.

From a plot summary like that, you might think "V" has something to say about the reaction to terrorism in our own country, but you'd be short of the mark. "V" has a lot to say about it. In fact, almost everything it says is a thinly veiled remark about it. Actually, much of it isn't very veiled at all: If it weren't terrorists but your own government behind the attack, goes a representative bit of monologue between two police officers in pursuit of V, would you want to know? If direct hints aren't enough for you, the Wachowskis and McTeigue allow V (in disguise) to give a five-minute diatribe to these very police officers. Then they throw Portman's Evey in a Guantanamo-style gulag.

"V for Vendetta" is a polemic disguised as an action movie. The graphic novel, penned by the same team who gave the world the later and much more well-known "The Watchmen," may have been about a dystopian future, but "V" the movie is firmly and unsubtly about the present. It shouts the kinds of notions that have heretofore been the property of obscure Internet sites. The British government, foam-flecked faces ranting out of the nation's TV screens, seems less like any current leaders in power than it does a natural evolution of Fox News.

The point, however campily presented, is a valid and timely one: The objects of V's wrath are not shadowy instruments of incomprehensible evil but rather familiar pillars of society we've come to mistrust — the newsman, the priest, the doctor — right on down the line.

Yet the chief (and, to some, the most nutty) claim "V for Vendetta" offers is that the annihilation of a symbol of society might actually be a good thing. But if terror by government is terrible, what good is an act of terrorism by the people? And aren't they still acting on someone else's ideas? These are difficult questions, and it's disappointing when "V" glosses over its bombastic conclusions without making some stab at answers. The movie demonstrates tremendous force, but also a shallow sense of history that risks undermining everything it tries to accomplish. Add the tendency to borrow haphazardly rather than invent, and the Wachowskis risk accusations of philosophical carelessness. Are we all locked in a matrix, or in a vast right-wing conspiracy?

By the time the credits roll and Mick Jagger starts singing about revolution, one question hovers over the finale of "V" like a darkening shadow: Do these new makers of protestainments really know what they're talking about, or are they just extremely adept at faking it? (R) 132 min. *** S


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