I was almost completely unfamiliar with the “Watchmen” when I walked into a screening of the film based on the graphic novel of the same name, and so fidelity to the source material meant almost nothing to me — I didn’t care if the movie lived up to the expectations of its rabid fans. To this non-fan, “Watchmen” sounded interesting — a visually sumptuous, darkly cynical take on the superhero genre, set in a bizarro parallel universe where President Nixon is serving his fifth term. The only concerns I had were about running time — the film is over two-and-a-half hours — and director Zack Snyder, who helmed the loud and idiotic “300.”
The Watchmen are basically a group of superheroes who were forced to retire when Nixon outlawed them, because of their increasing unpopularity. The film suggests that this was a pretty good move on Nixon’s part: the superheroes are basically a group of vigilantes who thrive on violence, and are frequently shown doing morally questionable things, like gunning down civilians. Only the nearly omnipotent Dr. Manhattan actually possesses super powers; the rest of the superheroes are regular folks who like to don masks and costumes and fight crime. The film asks the audience to seriously consider the motivations of these people, and it doesn’t take long to conclude that only damaged, weird people would be drawn to this particular line of work. In other words, the “Watchmen” is about antiheroes.
“Watchmen” opens with the murder of Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), also known as the superhero the Comedian. Police think the murder was a robbery, but fellow superhero Rorschach — who, despite the ban, continues to skulk around town in his mask and trenchcoat — believes that someone is hunting down former superheroes. Of course, the more we find out about the Comedian the less sad we are about his death, since in one particularly brutal scene he shoots and kills the woman who is pregnant with his child, and in another tries to rape fellow superhero Silk Spectre. But no matter. His murder sets the plot in motion, and we’re introduced to the other characters, who all have their own issues and are generally not the sort of people you’d want to invite to a dinner party. Meanwhile, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R are on the brink of nuclear war.
For the first couple of hours, the film moves along at a pretty good clip. It seamlessly jumps from one story line to another, and although the plot can be a bit difficult to follow, I was never bored. Particularly good is Jackie Earle Haley, as Rorschach. As a teenager, Haley appeared in two of my favorite films, the original “The Bad News Bears” and the coming-of-age biking film “Breaking Away,” before falling on hard times. But he picked up an Oscar nomination for his nuanced portrayal of a suburban pedophile in the 2006 film “Little Children,” and in “Watchmen” he’s even better: angry, frightening and completely insane. He is the dark heart of a film filled with unlikable people, and you can’t take your eyes off him. And he’s got the coolest mask.
I’d feel more positive about “Watchmen” if it wasn’t for the film’s ponderous final third, in which the “Watchmen’s” various threads converge into an incoherent mess. Up until this point, Snyder handles the demands of the complex story reasonably well, and the film is intelligent and thought-provoking. But I could have done without some of Dr. Manhattan's psuedo-philosophical mutterings (when he proclaimed his newfound belief in miracles, I wanted to gag), and the almost-parodic sex scene between The Night Owl and Silk Spectre, set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” This is a song that just doesn't belong in a comic book movie. Or maybe any movie. And for some reason the final confrontation at the superhero Ozymandias’ arctic lair felt like a letdown. Maybe it’s because actor Matthew Goode just isn’t very good as Ozymandias, supposedly the smartest man on earth. I don’t know, he just didn’t seem that smart to me. And his voice was kind of weird.
WEIRD DVD PICK
Finally — it’s the horror movie about peak oil that everybody’s been waiting for! “Blood Car” is an extremely low-budget movie with a great premise: In the future, when gas is about $40 a gallon, an enterprising kindergarten teacher figures out how to power vehicles using HUMAN BLOOD.
As soon as I read about this film, I put it in my Netflix queue. Unfortunately, “Blood Car” doesn’t live up to its premise. But it does have a sick sense of humor and some truly creative moments, despite production values that make it look like something a group of precocious high school students put together. I’d actually like to see someone remake this film with a slightly larger budget, because the premise is just too good to waste.
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