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‘V for Vendetta’ still behind mask

Times Staff Writer

Warner Bros.’ upcoming “V for Vendetta” could be renamed “B for Bad Luck.”

The movie is based on an acclaimed graphic novel -- but that book’s author has called the screenplay “imbecilic” and wants nothing to do with the film. The lead actor was let go four weeks into the filming and his replacement never bothered to read the comic book. The main character is a masked terrorist on a rampage in London who uses the trains of the Underground to attack the government -- a scenario that has proven too close to real life. And despite a trailer for the film that culminates in a voice-over telling the audience to “remember, remember the 5th of November” -- a reference to the release date -- the opening was delayed at first until February and then, most recently, until March.

Finally, adding insult to injury, the film’s promotional U.K. website was recently sabotaged by a hacker. “This is naturally somewhat bloody depressing,” moaned the site’s administrator.

With so many travails, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if this capes-on-cobblestones movie will end up in the same commercial litter box as the studio’s “Catwoman,” a universally ridiculed masked mishap.

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If that fate befalls “Vendetta,” it would be bloody depressing for legions of fans who have been looking forward to seeing the beloved graphic novel elevated into a socially provocative film.Producer Joel Silver (“The Matrix,” “Lethal Weapon” franchises) acquired the rights to “V for Vendetta” in the late 1980s, at a time when the tale by writer Alan Moore and artist David Lloyd conjured up references of Margaret Thatcher and George Orwell -- not Osama bin Laden.

“This is a movie that is special.... It’s about violence and society,” Silver said in a recent phone interview. The producer spoke a bit more before the call came to an end. But he called back within the hour. “Look, we need help on this. We need people to understand what this movie is and what it’s trying to do. Look, it is a controversial movie.”

Silver can be forgiven for sounding a bit anxious about the road ahead. It’d be grossly unfair to say the movie is destined to be a train wreck. But even Silver can’t argue that it’s been a challenge just keeping this particular vehicle on track.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made it awkward for any ensuing film that intended to casually pan across the New York skyline or weave scenes of urban carnage into a plot. Likewise, “Vendetta” is a film that has some echoes of the July attacks in London that used mass transit and bombs and left more than 50 people dead.

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There is a wide gulf between the plot of “Vendetta” and the frightening real-life drama of today’s terrorism (attributed to Islamic fundamentalist groups). But Lloyd, who drew the haunting illustrations for “V for Vendetta” more than two decades ago, said there is at the heart of both some troubling questions about violence and its necessity or rationale.

“One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist -- there is a lot of truth to that and it raises issues that cannot ignored nor should be ignored in light of what’s going on in the world today,” he said.

But Lloyd’s voice had a tinge of resignation in it as he spoke on the phone from his home in a coastal resort town in the south of England: “I just hope the film comes out here. I can see a certain unfolding of events over the next few months that might make it difficult for this film to be presented and accepted in England. But I think it’s a very important time for this film to be seen. Terrorism is something that more movies and books should be made about.”

There have been significant changes that pull “Vendetta” the film away from “Vendetta” the graphic novel (most notably, the entire ending is markedly different and the number of characters has been dramatically reduced) but the plot is still this: A mystery man who exhibits some superhuman abilities is on a rampage in London and his theatrically symbolic acts of destruction are meant to topple a repressive conservative government.

His background is a mystery but there are hints that he was a victim of a government biological experiment. He wears a mask of Guy Fawkes, the infamous ringleader of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. A provincial Catholic, Fawkes wanted to kill King James I and bring down the Protestant aristocracy of England in one big bang by detonating explosives beneath the Houses of Parliament during a state event.

The character who wears his likeness in “V” has similar plans. That brought the cast and crew to the very heart of the British government -- between Trafalger Square and Big Ben -- the first week of June with tanks and an ominous (but fake) brigade of commandos armed to teeth .

The commotion at the steps of Parliament created a stir with the attendant press and tourists but it seemed it could only generate some pre-release publicity heat. It was the first time that the British government allowed a film crew in the historical site.

“I don’t think you will ever see a film made there again,” Lloyd said with a sigh.

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With the March release date now in place, the film may have an extra cushion of time that will soften any linkage to the attacks in London.

The Wachowski brothers, who wrote the screenplay, saw a cut in recent weeks, after which it was returned to the editing process -- but it isn’t clear whether that means the excising of particular screen moments that might hit too close to reality’s home. (The Wachowskis declined to be interviewed.)

The postponement did undercut a nice nuance of the film; the November day that had previously been circled is Guy Fawkes Day in England, the traditional day to shoot fireworks in honor of the explosion that didn’t happen back in 1605.

If the release delay does give the movie some breathing room, it might be the first time “Vendetta” has enjoyed fortuitous timing.

The movie stars Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea and John Hurt and was filmed in Berlin and London. It was directed by John McTeigue and reteams the Wachowskis with some of their “Matrix” brethren, Silver and Weaving.

It was an unexpected reunion.

British actor James Purefoy, who portrays Marc Antony in the new HBO series “Rome,” was initially given the part of V. Four weeks into film, he parted ways with the production.

“It wasn’t working out,” Silver said. “There was some problems. We went into a different direction.”

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The “different direction” was Weaving, the Nigerian-born actor who is perhaps best known as Agent Smith, the computer-generated heavy in “The Matrix.” The Wachowskis drafted Weaving.

From his home in Australia, Weaving said he had barely any preparation for the role, and had never read the graphic novel. “They were familiar with me and my capabilities, what I can and can’t do. I understand them and they understand me. I read the script twice I think. The real challenge is acting beneath that mask.”

Still unclear is whether the movie can get past the criticism leveled by Moore (who, like the Wachowskis, is press suspicious). He has asked that his name be taken off the credits and any checks (he said Warner Bros. should give Lloyd all the money for the story rights).

An elusive figure who cooks up intricate tales of mythology and the fantastic, Moore has been burned again when those creations have ambled off the printed page on to the screen.

“Swamp Thing,” “From Hell” and “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman” failed miserably to match Moore’s words. And his masterpiece, “Watchmen,” made history in comic books but has changed hands as a movie property repeatedly since 1980s and been treated brusquely along the way.

Moore himself despises Hollywood now.

He told the BBC in a rare interview that an ugly legal spat that followed the “Extraordinary Gentlemen” experience sealed his opinion of Hollywood. He told the interviewer he couldn’t have suffered worse treatment if he “had sodomized and murdered a busload of children after giving them heroin.”

Comic book fans revere Moore, so his disdain is a troublesome point. At the San Diego International Comic-Con, it was a point that came up during the premiere of the film’s trailer and the subsequent question-and-answer session with Silver, Lloyd, executive producer Grant Hill and Portman.

Luckily, if Moore is a hero to the all-important fanboy audience, Portman is its pinup.

“Yeah, this is my crowd,” Portman said backstage. “They’re really wonderful to me.”

That’s because Portman grew up in front of them as Princess (and then Queen) Amidala, the poor little royal who had perfect skin but bad taste in men. Mrs. Darth Vader showed up in San Diego with a barely-there dress and buzz haircut -- her tresses had been shaved for “Vendetta.”

She portrays Evey, the true emotional heart of the film. After she is nearly raped by a group of government agents, she is saved by V and whisked away to his shadow gallery, a lair that resembles the Batcave if it had been designed more for a cabaret singer than a crime fighter.

The relationship between Evey and V veers from captor and prisoner to an almost father-daughter affinity. It also undergoes some jolting plot twists that Portman said attracted her to the film.

Portman was born in Jerusalem, the daughter of a doctor and artist. That tandem had an impact on her; besides her career (and strong reviews for recent work such as “Garden State”) just before San Diego she was in Peru where she has been doing charity work to improve hospital care in troubled areas. She abhors violence. In the film, her character must decide whether V is a hero or villain.

“The freedom fighter or the terrorist,” she said, echoing the common plot motto associated with the film. “Most people agree that there is a point in time where violence is acceptable. If your child is in danger, would you kill? What if -- as a leader of a people -- you begin to believe your people are your children. Is it OK to kill then? And what does violence do us after we embrace it?”

Portman predicts the film’s story will carry past the bumpy road its ridden to date.

She also shrugged when asked if it was hard to play opposite a masked man whose inner actor changed from scene to scene. “The mask is covering an idea, not a person. That’s the mask come off. Hugo is a great actor but really, it didn’t matter at some points who was under the mask. We’re under the mask.”


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