Friday, March 6, 2009

Review: "Watchmen"

I loved this movie, but I’m not sure if you will.

That’s the most honest review I can give of the film version of “Watchmen,” which to the hardcore geekarati (like me) is the Holy Grail of comic books. Probably most people have never heard of it. But to its small army of fans, the 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons represents the pinnacle of art in a medium generally dismissed as pulp confection.

Hollywood has tried and failed for years to turn out a movie translation, until now. Director Zach Snyder (who co-write the script with Alex Tse) delivers a stunning and bold vision that will in all likelihood enthrall those familiar with the graphic novel, but has an equal chance to leave non-fans mystified.

This is, after all, the super-hero comic book that subverts every tradition of the costumed hero. Set in an alternate reality of 1985 where Richard Nixon is still president and nuclear war with the Soviet Union looms, this is a world in which only one hero actually has super-powers. And the blue-skinned, all-powerful Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) strolls around naked and seems more interested in tachyons than the lives or deaths of petty humans.

Most of the “heroes” are psychological messes, like the repressed Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), or outright mental cases, like Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), who walks around beneath a mask of shifting ink blots, and preys upon the criminal underworld like a rabid redeemer.

Rorschach is obsessed with punishing the wicked; helping the defenseless is just a casual by-product. He makes the Dark Knight look cuddly.

As the story opens, an older crime fighter named the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has been murdered. The Comedian was the punch line and perpetrator of his own sick joke: He happily killed and maimed in the name of justice, whether as a costumed vigilante or pawn of the American military. Once they had served out their usefulness, though, the government outlawed super-heroes like him.

Rorschach suspects someone is offing costumed heroes, and sets about to warn his old comrades.
Most are living quietly in retirement, like Nite Owl, puttering around in his basement of super-gadgets gathering dust, and don’t want to be bothered. Dr. Manhattan is so consumed with his energy experiments that he barely acknowledges the existence of his girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman). Laurie is a former super-hero herself, although she only did it to follow in the footsteps of her mom, one of the original crime fighters. And Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) seems most interested in cashing in on his colorful career to build his conglomerate empire.

Without belaboring the intricate details of the plot, suffice to say that events build far beyond the concerns of a few middle-aged has-beens to the imminent destruction of all mankind.

Snyder, as he did in translating Frank Miller’s “300” to the screen, faithfully (almost obsessively) mirrors the look of the comic – right down to the gruesome, blood-spurting violence that earned “Watchmen” its very deserved R rating.

The biggest problem in putting the static novel into motion is the ensemble cast: Six main characters, each with their own layered personas and backstories. Even if the movie ran beyond its already considerable length, it would be hard to prevent some of the heroes, such as Nite Owl, from receding into the background.

And some of Snyder and Tse’s attempts to spin in topical references, such as our reliance on fossil fuels, feel forced.

The one unmitigated triumph is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach – all of the character’s mesmerizing, disturbing black-and-white code of justice is right there on the screen. (Haley even got the “hurm” right … fanboys will know what I mean.)

My guess is that “Watchmen” will polarize audiences and critics to an even greater degree than “300” did. Some people reading this are going to hate it. Others will be thrilled to see the vision of their beloved comic book breathed to cinematic life. It all depends on from where you’re watching.

3.5 stars out of four

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