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With: Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Carla Gugino, Matt Frewer, Stephen McHattie, Laura Mennell, Rob LaBelle, Gary Houston, James Michael Connor, Mary Ann Burger, John Shaw
Written by: David Hayter, Alex Tse, based on a comic book by Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore
Directed by: Zack Snyder
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence, sexuality, nudity and language
Running Time: 163
Date: 23/02/2009

Watchmen (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Hero Hour

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy Watchmen on DVD

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 1986 comic book Watchmen is so dense and intense that it can make one long for the relative safety and relaxation of Gotham City. The long-planned, long-awaited movie adaptation must have been a daunting task. I was worried for the project when former music-video director Zack Snyder had been hired; his other credits include a fairly good remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), and the slick but unbearably stupid 300 (2007). Thankfully, Snyder has taken the "slick" part and transferred it to a canny screenplay by David Hayter and Bay Area resident Alex Tse. The new combination of slick and smart works blazingly well.

The story takes place in an alternate reality; it's 1986 and Nixon has been reelected for a third term. The United States and Russia are in a lockstep nuclear arms race, each stockpiling enough bombs to blow up the earth several times over. Violence and chaos rule the streets; the weather is usually rainy and grimy with a chance of graffiti and porn theaters. There's a general disdain for all things soft and left-wing ("it was either Nixon or the Commies," one character sighs) though the right-wing doesn't seem to offer anything much better. The nation's superheroes have been forced by a Congressional bill to retire; a few work in an official capacity for the government, some still prowl the streets as vigilantes and others have merely quit. Unlike our more familiar comic book stars, most of these superheroes don't seem to have very many superpowers; they can fight, they wear costumes, and they sometimes have neat gizmos.

And so we meet Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a sociopath with a creepy mask of moving ink blots; he's a bit like the old comic book Batman, using detective work, a grappling hook, and his wits to track down leads before beating punks senseless. The bald, blue, glowing Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) has power to control molecules, or something like that, and he's working in an official capacity on averting the nuclear crisis. He lives with Laurie Jupiter, a.k.a. Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), though their emotional and carnal relationship has become strained. Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) has retired to the corporate world, investing in new forms of energy. And Dan Dreiberg, a.k.a. Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) just mopes around, keeping a basement full of dusty crimefighting equipment.

These are the second wave of heroes, coming on the bootheels of a pack of WWII-era heroes, including Laurie's mother (Carla Gugino), and the original Nite Owl (Stephen McHattie), who shares beers with Dan every week. Then there's the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who begins our story. When the Comedian is killed and hurled from a top-floor window to the street below, it starts Rorschach thinking that maybe a hero-killer is on the loose. That's a problem, but maybe not so much as an impending nuclear war, which could be mere days away. There are dozens of other subplots, including scenes of Nixon (Robert Wisden) sweating it out in the War Room, but perhaps the most significant is Laurie leaving Dr. Manhattan and falling in love with Dan. Will being dumped take Dr. Manhattan's mind off his job?

Even at 163 minutes, Watchmen feels compact and speedy, and never confusing. (It helps if you know something about mid-1980s politics.) And somehow Snyder beats the current trend for shaky-cam and offers smooth, exciting action sequences, as well as plenty of other easy-to-follow non-action sequences. It's an admirable, bordering on astonishing, work of adaptation. It's rigorously faithful to the dialogue and imagery of the comic book (it excises items like the pirate comic and Hollis Mason's tell-all biography) but never feels shackled or weighed down the way that many adaptations do. It becomes a movie rather than a big book-on-tape.

The picture's flaws are minor. The women characters leave a bit to be desired, but that only follows, given the quasi-fascist nature of the political atmosphere. Some of the performances are a bit wobbly; Goode very often reads his lines like memorized poetry rather than conversational speaking, and Akerman frequently sounds like a Southern California chick rather than a big city superhero. And poor Wisden, slathered with make-up, has to be the worst Nixon ever filmed, especially coming right after Frank Langella's Oscar-nominated turn in Frost/Nixon. (Even Dan Aykroyd was better on "Saturday Night Live.") And, of course, the movie could be just a bit shorter, though some reports indicate that Snyder has an even longer cut reserved for DVD.

On the plus side, the movie deserves applause for all other aspects, but my favorite element has to be Haley as Rorschach. The character is of a smaller stature on screen than he is in the comic, but Haley adds a real human element to this guy's bad behavior, expanding beyond the source material. Sure, he can beat the tar out of anyone, especially guys twice his size, but when challenged on a more emotional level, Haley really steps it up to show appealing pain and frustration; it's hard not to like him, as horrible as he is. (Is he this year's Joker?) Haley earned an Oscar nomination two years ago for his performance as a creepy child molester in Little Children, and for my money this one's even better.

Some of the film's messages (i.e. Nixon, nuclear holocaust, etc.) feel a bit dated, and Watchmen probably won't tap into the public consciousness the way The Dark Knight did. Indeed, the parade of rape, murder, gore, cancer, violence, anger and political rot can feel oppressive. But I think the movie has something basic and primal in its fabric. We all feel ineffectual at some point, and the idea that we all have secret superhero identities is comforting. You may feel wrung out after the onslaught of despair, but the movie rests on the tiny idea that, yes, we can do something about it. There is hope.

Also available on Blu-Ray.

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