V FOR VENDETTA - Blu-ray review

...an exciting, thoughtful, old-timey romantic-adventure story that shows up well in high-definition picture and sound.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot!
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot...."

This was my fourth time through "V for Vendetta," something of a record for me in so relatively short a time. I watched the movie in a theater, on DVD, on HD DVD, and now on Blu-ray. Darned good thing I like the film as much as I do, or it might have been a chore. Fortunately, the high-definition picture and sound would have made it a pleasure in any case, but my liking the story and characters helped, too.

Given its 2005 origins, "V for Vendetta" is something of an old-fashioned adventure flick, filled with action, humor, romance, politics, and the kind of swashbuckling that audiences haven't seen in movies for many years. It's a combination of "1984," "Zorro," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Beauty and the Beast," and "The Count of Monte Cristo," with only Doug Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, or Robert Donat missing from the title role. What more could you want? Well, OK, maybe a little less talk. But old-fashioned or not, you can see at a glance why Warner Bros. transferred this Wachowski brothers-James McTeigue film to Blu-ray. It looks and sounds terrific.

The movie's setting is the near future, where a repressive totalitarian regime has taken over England. The movie's hero, V, patterns himself after England's Guy Fawkes, the most famous of a group of anarchists who, in the so-called "Gunpowder Plot," attempted unsuccessfully on November 5, 1605, to kill King James I and the assembled Lords and Commons by blowing up Parliament in retaliation against what they considered oppressive laws against Roman Catholics. It may seem odd to moviegoers that a hero would fashion himself after an avowed anarchist, even unto wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, but, then, it may also seem odd to Americans that England continues to celebrate Guy Fawkes day on November 5, with observances that include fireworks, masked children begging "a penny for the guy," and the burning of little effigies of the conspirator. I suppose there is always something a little exciting and commendable about a David standing up to a Goliath, whether or not you agree with the David's motives or methods.

So, at the heart of "V for Vendetta," we get a man standing up for what he considers right and just, wearing a likeness of Fawkes, in deference to his own hero, and taking on the corrupt government. In addition, we get an old standby, the revenge plot. Evildoers have cruelly experimented upon V, tortured and disfigured him; now, he's out to exact his vengeance, and his vengeance is exact. More important, he's out to topple the country's administration and to avenge the regime's murder of tens of thousands of its own people. These motives seem noble enough. There was some criticism of the film at the time of its release about the story glamorizing terrorism, but clearly V is a terrorist fighting injustice, the way Zorro did, so for a romantic adventure, it works. As the Bard said, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." America's revolutionary leaders were patriots on one side of the Atlantic, traitors on the other. V is a freedom fighter of the best kind, and we don't have to agree with his violent methods to appreciate his motivations.

The movie is long at almost two-and-a-quarter hours, but I never noticed the time going by. It wasn't like, How long are they going to take to get to this island? How long are they going to be on this island? How many more dinosaurs are they going to find on this island? And how many more sunsets do we have to endure? "V for Vendetta" mixes a good deal of dialogue with healthy doses of action to produce a fairly well-rounded story. It's not just stuff blowing up every two minutes.

I liked Hugo Weaving as V, even if you never actually see him without a mask. He could have been Hugo Winterhalter for all I knew, but I loved his voice and gestures. He's a quintessential masked avenger, using knives the way Zorro used a sword or the Lone Ranger used a six-gun. Yet he's a tragic figure as well, a man scarred for life physically and emotionally, who has, nonetheless, not lost his humanity and can still feel love and compassion for those who deserve it.

I liked the revenge plot, tinged as it is with political overtones that one can just as easily ignore as apply to modern-day situations. It's easy to see Orwell's Big Brother in John Hurt's Adam Sutler, England's tyrannical leader. Big Brother in this case could represent any number of political leaders, past or present, liberal or conservative. Certainly, the idea of a politician creating a disaster in order to muster votes, stifle dissent, curtail civil rights, and assume a despotic rule is there in the movie for the taking, or the viewer can simply sit back, ignore the politics, and enjoy the daring deeds.

Moreover, I thought Natalie Portman made a lovely heroine, and I never experienced a problem with her accent, as some people did. I enjoyed the supporting cast, too, of Stephen Rea, John Hurt, Sinéad Cusack, Stephen Fry, Selina Giles, Rupert Graves, and other fine actors. I thought Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" an appropriate symbol for triumph over oppression. The composer premiered it in 1882 to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of Russia's victory over Napoleon, and everybody's been using it for similar purposes ever since, so why not the Wachowskis. And I was glad the filmmakers kept the CGI and other special effects to a minimum, meaning right away the film has more substance than most other action thrillers.

However, this is not to say I didn't have a few concerns. I know that a moviegoer should never question the logic of an old-time romantic adventure, but this movie does stretch credibility more than a tad. For instance, I kept wondering how a guy so disfigured that he has to wear a mask all the time buys groceries. I mean, it's not like he has a houseboy who runs his errands for him. And it's not like he can just walk into any store with or without a mask on. Does he steal his food? And he's got a houseful of art objects: How did he manage that all by himself? And, more important, where does he get his money? Are there more thefts involved that the filmmakers never tell us about? And his house: Early on V says it's underground, but later we see that it has a very high rooftop balcony, too. Where did he get such an elaborate place? Did he inherit it, or did he answer an ad in the newspaper? And don't the neighbors ever wonder about him going to and fro? And as for his clearing out an entire tunnel by himself, even if it took him ten years as he says it did, come on! One guy? And nobody noticed? And the entire government police force fails to notice the excavation, but one, lone detective at the end of the movie finds it in two minutes? Yeah, well, nobody questions a guy in a bat suit, either, so I guess we can suspend our disbelief and go along with it. I did suspend it, and I really had no trouble.

Let me put it another way: Despite its limitations, in terms of a Wachowski brothers' film, this one is a darned sight better than their last two "Matrix" endeavors, which may not be any big compliment but makes "V" a pretty decent adventure romance. The movie contains great, fun derring-do, if maybe a little too much chatter. Well, different people see things differently, and certainly not everyone will enjoy this admittedly offbeat film as much as I did.

For a broader selection of viewpoints on the subject, the reader might consider reading DVDTOWN's review of the standard-definition DVD of the movie. That review includes opinions from a number of our critics, some of whom liked the film, some of whom positively hated it. I was clearly among the former.

"Violence can be used for good...and justice."

In its standard-definition form, the picture benefited from a high bit rate, anamorphic transfer that looked quite good but sometimes displayed a touch of blur, with slightly subdued colors and facial hues that leaned to the pinkish. In the VC-1 Blu-ray and HD DVD high-definition transfers most of this has changed, the high-def picture quality looking as nearly perfect as I imagine it could be. The original 2.40:1 ratio image again stretches widely across the screen, only this time there are no odd facial shades and no blur whatever.

I found some shots in high-def spectacularly well defined, the models of London looking, for instance, remarkably intricate and showing up in extremely vivid detail. Colors are ideal, especially those all-important flesh tones I mentioned. As good as the SD picture quality is, the Blu-ray, like the HD DVD, goes it one better in sharpness and delineation, with practically no grain to speak of. Beautiful. And for the sake of argument, I could see no significant difference between the Blu-ray and HD DVD editions, comparing them side by side in Panasonic BD30 and Toshiba A35 players.

In English the Blu-ray audio comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby TrueHD 5.1. Dolby Digital provides a fairly clear, clean sound, with a taut bass and wide dynamics. But, of course, Dolby TrueHD provides a smoother, more natural response than DD 5.1, with a wider sound field and greater depth. Obviously, you should listen in Dolby TrueHD if possible, but be aware that you do have to choose it. Regular Dolby Digital is the default audio format, so when the movie begins, you must remember to select TrueHD from the audio menu. I had to stop the movie in the middle to go out to dinner and then continue it when I returned home. Need I mention what happened next? I was ten minutes into the picture before I remembered to turn the TrueHD on.

Incidentally, several sequences in the film are quite bass heavy, dynamic, and robust. Although a good deal of the movie contains dialogue, a few of the action scenes rock the house. What's more, I had no trouble understanding anything that any character said, and I never thought Weaving's voice as V was an issue in any of the audio formats, even though he speaks from behind a mask.

Comparing the clearer, tauter Dolby TrueHD sonics to the regular DD 5.1, I thought the DD 5.1 a bit soft and woolly. Rear-channel information in both audio formats is good, with TrueHD being a tad better in pinpoint directionality from all five main channels and a bit more expansive in its sense of surround. Deep bass shows further improvement in TrueHD, being tighter and more sharply outlined. Most important, the TrueHD sound is totally neutral in character, well balanced, well focused, and highly dimensional. As I say, if you have the capability to listen in Dolby TrueHD, do so. It's some of the best sound around.

Warner Bros. carried over most of the bonus items contained on their standard-definition, two-disc Special Edition to their single-disc Blu-ray and HD-DVD editions. While I considered the SD edition remarkably devoid of serious extras, the Blu-ray's (and HD DVD's) "In-Movie Experience" helps make up for past deficiencies. This was, in fact, the first picture-in-picture feature I've tried in Blu-ray, and if you are not familiar with the concept, it uses on-screen inserts to allow in this case the director, the cast, and the crew to talk about the film as the film is progressing, all the while showing the viewer behind-the-scenes looks at special effects, model building, technical elements, and the like. It's sort of a revved-up version of the venerable audio commentary but with visuals added. I just had to remember to turn on my player's secondary audio in order to hear it.

Then, there are four relatively brief featurettes. The first is the seventeen-minute featurette "Designing the Near Future," about production planning, sets, models, etc. Then, there is the ten-minute featurette "Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes and The Gunpowder Plot," a history of the historical character from 1605. Following that is the fifteen-minute featurette, "Freedom! Forever! Making V for Vendetta," where we learn a little something about the adaptation of the movie from the 1980s' comic books by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, but it's not much. And there is the fourteen-minute featurette "England Prevails: V for Vendetta and the New Wave in Comics," about the history and evolution of comic books from the mid 1950s to the present.

Next, there is a Cat Power music video, "I Found a Reason"; a widescreen theatrical trailer; a two-minute "SNL" short subject, "Saturday Night Live" rap, with Natalie Portman; and some soundtrack album information. The disc comes with thirty-three scene selections, but no chapter insert; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Finally, the package includes pop-up menus, bookmarks, and an indicator of elapsed time.

Parting Thoughts:
"V for Vendetta" is not a typical action flick, and the main character is not another cookie-cutter superhero. You may not like the movie's unconventional approach, and, indeed, Alan Moore, the author of the graphic novel on which the filmmakers based their story, denounced the movie for turning his anarchist hero into a freedom fighter. Be that as it may, "V" is an exciting, thoughtful, old-timey romantic-adventure story that shows up well in high-definition picture and sound. The Blu-ray version is fun to look at, fun to listen to, and fun to immerse oneself in. The audiovisual qualities place it among the elite of high-definition discs.


Film Value