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Review: Watchmen

As a reimagining of the past, Watchmen is at times jaw-dropping.
By A.S. HAMRAH  |  March 6, 2009
2.5 2.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Watchmen

Watchmen | Directed by Zack Snyder | Written by David Hayter and Alex Tse based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons | with Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Jackie Earle Haley, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Patrick Wilson | Warner Bros. | 163 minutes

Interview: Zack Snyder. By James Parker.

People who've always wanted to see Lee Iacocca shot in the head will not be disappointed with Zack Snyder's screen adaptation of the comic-book series Watchmen. The former Chrysler chairman and author of the book Where Have All the Leaders Gone is one of a series of real-life figures from the past 40 years who show up, played by actors in spackle make-up, to take their lumps for alternative history. As a reimagining of the past, Watchmen is at times jaw-dropping. As a movie, it is very long. But it's a slog through the past that's semi-valuable. It shows the 1980s as dark and drizzly, not the sunshiny picnic the dwindling number of Ronald Reagan cultists want it to be.

The opening-credits sequence, which unfolds as backstory over what seems like an entire reel, can leave you aghast or thrilled. A series of tableaux vivants featuring cameos from superhero characters who are more interesting than the film's main cast, this sequence presents highlights of American history commingling with a first generation of caped crusaders. They rise to prominence, then fall into sordid obsolescence and violent death: a lesbian in black leather kisses a nurse in Times Square on VE Day and years later is murdered in bed with the same woman; a masked avenger is shuttled off to the loony bin by men in white suits; another catches his cape in a revolving door and is gunned down by thugs. As the sequence progresses, the heroes start to contribute to societal breakdown instead of stanching it. The film's most interesting antihero, the Comedian, is revealed as the perp in one of American history's worst killings.

This kind of brutality is Snyder's main interest. It's what he's good at, it's what he loves. When Watchmen concentrates on violence, it comes alive. When it meanders into metaphysics, which it does frequently and at length, it loses its way. The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a rapist and mass murderer, is the film's heart and soul. He competes for this honor with Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach, an embittered sociopath fighting the good fight against the scum of the earth and the "liberal smooth-talkers" afraid to punish them.

Haley gives the film's best performance. His Rorschach is an insidious combination of Johnny Rotten and the Green Goblin that the actor voices with Clint Eastwood's sneer. Too bad his narration, which comes in the form of journal entries, sounds like something Paul Schrader wrote one morning while holding an icepack to his head. Other actors fare less well than Haley and Morgan. As Ozymandias, Matthew Goode channels Dana Carvey. Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan, a blue-skinned CGI cut-out pasted onto scenes like a Colorform, wanders through the movie like a giant Hare Krishna lost in the airport.

When Dr. Manhattan exiles himself to Mars, he and the film are afforded more room to wander. The constant threat of nuclear annihilation doesn't move the proceedings along — in that sense the movie is like real life. The sugary ending — boy gets girl — comes at the cost of millions of lives. By the end, the film is like Dr. Manhattan from the waist down: limp, blue, computer-generated.

Watchmen's use of music — mostly classic rock, but Nena's "99 Luftballons" makes a brief appearance — undercuts the film's anti-Gump approach by recapitulating the Gump idea that the history of pop music is the same as the history of history, and that both exist only to underscore grandiose Hollywood bunk. But I liked how Snyder used "The Times They Are a-Changin' " in that sick opening-credits sequence. For a while it seemed that something subversive was happening.

Related: Interview: Zack Snyder of Watchmen, Interview: Alan Moore, author of Watchmen, Big pictures, More more >
  Topics: Reviews , Alan Moore, Billy Crudup, Carla Gugino,  More more >
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