They were popular a generation ago, then they were outlawed. Now one of them, The Comedian, has been murdered. Rorschach, the member perhaps most feared by the remaining, now mostly underground clan, begins an investigation which will blow apart what everyone once thought of "Watchmen."
Who will watch the Watchmen indeed. Alan Moore's mid-80's graphic novel, brilliantly illustrated by Dave Gibbons, won the Hugo Award and was named one of the top 100 most important novels of the last century by Time magazine. We're talking fanboy manna of the highest literary order here and a film project that has not only been in the making for decades, but arrived with its own cliff hanger of an ending when Paramount slapped Warner Brothers with a rights ownership law suit.
So, with such idiosyncratic directors as Terry Gilliam having been involved, the project finally comes to fruition in the hands of Zack Snyder of the (terrific) "Dawn of the Dead" remake and the stylized-to-the-max "300." He shows some real verve in the film's opening credit sequence where he presents the 'beginnings' back story of the original 'masks.' Set to Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changing'," we see the original Nite Owl, Hooded Justice, Silk Spectre (aka Sally Jupiter) et al over the ages, with such inspired tableaux as lesbian Silhouette taking over the sailor's spot in the famous Times Square V-Day photo, a Minuteman gathering aping Da Vinci's Last Supper and Adrian Veidt entering Studio 54 with a Ziggy era David Bowie and Mick Jagger as Vanity Fair's Annie Leibovitz snaps away. Then Snyder relinquishes anything resembling directorial vision to bow at the altar of Gibbons's story boards. Giant squids notwithstanding, it is a slavishly faithful, if compressed, adaptation - so much so that I often wondered why the comic frames weren't simply projected onto the screen.
And so we have a parallel universe where Richard Nixon is in office for a third term as a doomsday clock ticks down towards nuclear annihilation in a cold war conflict between the Soviets and the U.S. The Comedian, a right wing mercenary said to be in deep with the Government, is murdered and Rorschach senses conspiracy. He visits Dan Drieberg (Patrick Wilson, "Little Children"), the man who took over Nite Owl's mantle, to express his concerns and share a lead, and then goes to see Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, "Almost Famous"), the only actual super hero of the bunch who has been the great anti-nuclear deterrent up until now (he can mind meld matter). Manhattan's emotional register has been compromised by his transformation and so his love life has become something of a soap opera as girlfriend Silk Spectre II (Sally's daughter Laurie) turns to Drieberg for some 'understanding.' Veidt, both the 'world's smartest man' and one of the few masks to have unmasked (his alter ego, Ozymandias), is now a billionaire who toys with the likes of Lee Iacocca. Veidt escapes an assassination attempt, Manhattan is blindsided at a press conference with information that sends him sulking to Mars and Rorschach is, most ironically, jailed for murder. When Nite Owl and Silk Spectre bust him out, all these events become tied together as part of a master plan that paints original author Moore as profoundly prophetic.
The original comic series is rich in psychological characterization, each chapter beginning with 'supplemental' material that fully forms each of the masks and that can only be touched on in the film (brief flashbacks to Rorschach as the young, abused son of a prostitute but not the genesis of his ever-changing mask; stacks of 'Under the Hood' books in original Nite Owl Hollis Mason's auto body shop office but none of its stories). Also jettisoned is the parallel 'Tales of the Black Freighter,' a comic being read within the story at a prominent newsstand which itself makes only a quick cameo. These things will appear in what sounds to be a very packed DVD.
David Hayter ("X-Men," "X2") and Alex Tse's adaptation is a very good culling of the main story line and Snyder's recreation of Gibbons's visuals often bring a new found appreciation of them (the blood that drips on The Comedian's smiley face button shadows the placement of the five minutes to midnight hands on the doomsday clock, etc.), yet for all the attention to get the source material on the screen the film lacks its own soul, its own sense of discovery. It's both a thrill to see the novel recreated and a disappointment that it is so exact.
There's been a lot of advance blah-blah on the net about the exaggeration of the violence, that these regular masked vigilantes have the super power abilities to throw people across rooms, etc., but that's just so much smoke. Had Snyder staged some regular old fist-fighting, his film would have lost some fizz. Malin Akerman's performance has also been getting bashed, but she's as fine as most here. In truth, the only performance of note is Jackie Earle Haley's tough take on Rorschach and even he doesn't approach Heath Ledger levels. Crudup's playing emotionally detached and Matthew Goode, in a perfectly atrocious wig, puts on his Jeremy Irons voice for Veidt. Patrick Wilson is too passive as the limp Owl, showing no nerves around Rorschach or Spectre. Jeffrey Dean Morgan gets his teeth into The Comedian, the most obviously flawed of the Watchmen. After Frank Langella's Oscar nominated performance, Robert Wisden's Nixon is almost an embarrassment (and Snyder's Strangelovian war room is perhaps a too obvious choice, like his use of "All Around the Watchtower").
The film fully deserves its R rating as Snyder doesn't flinch from flinging body parts at the screen, from Dr. Manhattan's blue penis and Nite Owl and Spectre's animated coupling (certainly the funniest use of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" yet) to bullets ripping through a secretary's calf and the legbone of a little girl being mauled by dogs. Production design is appropriately gritty throughout, and, although Snyder resisted the idea to contemporize the novel, the final images of New York City are certainly food for today's thoughts. The special effect that is Rorschach's mask is endlessly interesting and should inspire a frame by frame analysis of its own.
"Watchmen" has been undone somewhat by trying to appease its fans, but it is a very good adaptation of a complex and thought-provoking work of fiction.
Robin did not see this film.
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