Watchmen (2009)

Rating: ****
Release Date: 3/6/09
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: David Hayter
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Akerman, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Carla Gugino, Apollonia Vanova

Wow. The golden grail of graphic novels, the comic book equivalent of crack cocaine, and a story that only a few years ago would have been impossible to capture on film. And now, here it is. While it's not perfect, and may not even be entertaining, it is superbly crafted and undeniably AMAZING. "Watchmen" isn't so much a movie as it is an experience. Rabid fan-boys may tear the film apart for deviating from the original material, but they've sadly lost sight of the miracle that the film even exists at all. And it's brilliant.

The story takes place in a world where costumed heroes are a reality. In the 1940's, they were simply crime fighters, playing cops and robbers and seeking justice. But during the 1960's, the world became more complicated and imperfect, as did the heroes and villains. A new group of costumed vigilantes was formed to fight crime, but they were eventually outlawed by the Keene Act. Adding fuel to the global arms race powderkeg was the birth of an invincible super-being known as Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), who the Americans used as a nuclear deterrent as well as a show of force. Fast forward to 1985: Richard Nixon is serving his third term as president of the United States and the Cold War with Russia is reaching its boiling point. Russia threatens to invade Afghanistan, tempting America to act with full nuclear retaliation. During this time of crisis, one of the retired costumed heroes known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is murdered, causing his former colleagues Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), and Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman) to investigate. What they discover will push the world to the brink of annihilation.

First of all, the film is a dazzling spectacle of cutting edge visionary filmmaking. Director Zack Snyder ("300" (2007) ) is in his element here, and he does not disappoint. It's a gorgeous piece of work that left me wide-eyed in amazement all the way through. Snyder also keeps everything in the film straight forward and to the point, and even though it's full of visual flair, it never feels like the film is trying to draw attention to itself. I fully admire and respect that. Secondly, with the possible exception of Silk Spectre II, the casting is brilliant and the actors match their comic book counterparts perfectly. Billy Crudup's Dr. Manhattan is as creepy as it is awe-inspiring, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Patrick Wilson give astounding performances. They bring emotional depth and realism to the world of costumed vigilantes as well as a huge sense of physical presence and intimidation. And then there's the group's intensely violent sociopath, Rorschach. Jackie Earle Haley does a great job as the story's most iconic character, although he seems to lack the same presence as his co-stars. His gruff voice also seems a little too forced, much like Christian Bale's Batman. And of course, his mask isn't how I imagined, but these are all minor niggles that I want to try and avoid. Just seeing him onscreen makes me positively giddy. Of the main cast, Malin Akerman is the least convincing, but she still puts up a good fight and kicks some major ass. Not surprisingly, she suffers from some minor shoe continuity issues while she's fighting, but it's much better than I expected it would be.

The music score is excellent and creates a dark and oppressive emotional tone. Other songs help to place the movie within its multiple historical time frames to good effect. David Hayter's screenplay is wonderful, and manages to capture the overall tone of the story while hitting the important highlights. Even so, it's a long film and clocks in just short of three hours. The pacing can be challenging, but the story and execution are riveting. It's not an action film, as you would normally expect from a comic book adaptation, but the two or three times that the film erupts into violence are breath-taking. Not only are the fight scenes competently choreographed and filmed, but they're also brutally and graphically violent, striking an excellent balance between flashy and realistic. I was very impressed. The film also does a wonderful job of injecting real historical figures into the narrative, and it's thrilling to identify them in the context of the story (like Andy Warhol painting a portrait of Nite Owl, for instance). The film is consistently dark, brooding, vicious, violent, and utterly devoid of happiness and hope - just like in real life. The overall effect is both intoxicating and sobering at the same time. There were only a couple of moments in the film that I thought were inappropriate or poorly done, with the biggest offender being the Martian graffiti scene. (groan) Ultimately, "Watchmen" is a spectacular film for anyone who loves intelligent and mature science fiction and fantasy. Unfortunately, it may also be too clever and complicated for mainstream audiences to grasp and appreciate.