The Films of James McTeigue
V for Vendetta (March 13/06)
Though it was written almost two decades ago, Alan Moore's graphic novel V for Vendetta is clearly just as relevant today as it was upon its original publication (if not more so). With its themes of freedom, oppression, and individual rights versus public order, the story (and likewise the film) comes off as an astonishingly pertinent and thoroughly engaging piece of work. Set in the year 2020, V for Vendetta transpires in a world where the United States has become a shadow of its former self and London is under the grip of a tyrannical madman named Adam Sutler (John Hurt). A mysterious, masked figure known only as V (Hugo Weaving) has been hitting back at the government by blowing things up and encouraging his fellow citizens to rise up and fight. V finds an unlikely ally in Evey (Natalie Portman), a young woman he saves from certain doom at the hands of three corrupt policemen. Featuring a script adapted by the notoriously reclusive Wachowski brothers, V for Vendetta doesn't quite play out like the keyed-up action flick that the marketing campaign's been promising - which certainly isn't a bad thing, though it's clear less patient viewers will have a tough time sitting through the copious dialogue. It's just as obvious, however, that the Wachowskis aren't interested in delivering just another mindless piece of escapism; as was the case with The Matrix, the brothers use the genre to explore some decidedly heavy themes. The end result is a movie that does provide the expected visceral thrills, but also manages to engage the viewer on an intellectual level. Adding to that vibe are the unusually complex performances, with Portman and Weaving particularly effective in their respective roles. Portman does a nice job of portraying Evey's tumultuous arc, which undeniably resembles the transformation that Keanu Reeves' Neo underwent in the original Matrix (complete with shaved heads, no less). Likewise, filmmaker James McTeigue sets the mood early on by employing stylish yet appropriate directorial choices (that he's been inspired by the Wachowski brothers' sense of style is obvious). The inclusion of several unexpectedly and genuinely moving sequences certainly doesn't hurt, something that's especially true of a flashback revolving around the plight of a doomed homosexual woman. There's little in V for Vendetta that doesn't work; aside from a slight case of overlength and a few questionable choices here and there, the film is essentially as good as it gets in terms of big-budget extravaganzas.
Rarely as fun as its title suggests, Ninja Assassin follows disgraced ninja Raizo (Rain) as he embarks on a revenge-fueled quest to take down his former master (Shô Kosugi's Ozunu) - with his efforts eventually assisted by a tenacious Europol agent (Naomie Harris' Mika Coretti). There's little doubt that Ninja Assassin gets off to an undeniably promising start, as director James McTeigue kicks the proceedings off with an admittedly electrifying sequence in which several wannabe gangsters are attacked by a group of ninjas. It's an engaging, unabashedly tongue-in-cheek opening that's ultimately not representative of the film's pervasively (and woefully) convoluted sensibilities, with the remainder of the narrative devoted primarily to underwhelming elements that effectively drain the viewer's enthusiasm (ie flashbacks into Raizo's past, Mika's ongoing investigation, etc, etc). Exacerbating Ninja Assassin's problems are the almost uniformly incoherent action sequences, as McTeigue drains most such moments of their impact by emphasizing ostentatious (and thoroughly distracting) camera tricks - which, when coupled with the film's seemingly ceaseless darkness, effectively leaves the viewer scratching their head in both confusion and frustration. It's worth noting, however, that the film generally does remain watchable in spite of its myriad of deficiencies, with the genuinely enthralling climax proving just effective enough to warrant a mild recommendation - yet there's ultimately no denying that McTeigue has essentially squandered the movie's inherently irresistible premise (ie this should've been a fast-paced throwback to the gleefully violent actioners of the 1980s).
The Raven follows Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) as he's reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation after a mysterious figure begins offing victims using imagery from his stories, with Poe's ambivalence towards the situation extinguished as his fiancée (Alice Eve's Emily Hamilton) is abducted and held hostage by the increasingly psychotic killer. There's little doubt that The Raven benefits substantially from Cusack's perpetually engaging (and periodically broad) turn as the central character, with the decidedly larger-than-life bent of Poe's personality - eg he owns a pet raccoon, he's given to bombastic declarations, etc, etc - proving effective at initially luring the viewer into the proceedings. It's only as scripters Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare place an increasingly prominent emphasis on the central mystery that one's interest begins to palpably deflate, as the movie's midsection, which primarily follows Poe and Luke Evans' lead detective as they chase down clues and suspects, increasingly adopts the feel of a run-of-the-mill police procedural - with the less-than-enthralling atmosphere compounded by filmmaker James McTeigue's incongruously slow-moving sensibilities. The ensuing lack of momentum, coupled with a case of palpable overlength, ultimately diminishes the impact of the film's set-pieces and climactic revelations, and it is, in the end, clear that The Raven can't quite live up to the promise of its irresistibly high-concept premise.