Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Anybody who has read Alan Moore’s grim but ground-breaking graphic novel “Watchmen” should enjoy the R-rated, 161-minute, Warner Brothers/Paramount Studios’ big-screen adaptation. “Dawn of the Dead” director Zack Snyder’s “Watchmen” (**** out of ****) ranks as the best costumed crime fighters movie of all time. Think of it as the “Gone with the Wind” of superhero sagas. “Watchmen” makes both “The Dark Knight” and “Batman Begins” look like adolescent fantasies. The crime busters of “Watchmen” aren’t role models, and the novel and the film both emerge as hopelessly cynical with cosmic irony galore. Scenarists David (“X-Men” & “X-Men 2”) Hayter and newcomer Alex Tse have retained about 90 percent of Moore’s novel, but Moore refused to let the studios plaster his name on the movie. Presumably, Moore hasn’t recovered from the blasphemous Sean Connery movie “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” that left a bad taste in his mouth.

This exciting epic about a faction of superheroes based in New York City who come out of retirement (call it the dark flipside of “The Incredibles”) to save the world from itself qualifies as an elaborate exercise in cutting-edge computer-generated visuals and high-octane, adrenaline-laced heroics. Parents who take their children to see “Watchmen” ought to be reported to the Department of Human Services. Although the violence isn’t gratuitous, “Watchmen” features scenes of acute brutality and carnage. An unsavory superhero guns down a pregnant Vietnamese woman with extreme prejudice after she slashes his face with a broken beer bottle. In another scene, a prison inmate brandishes a portable, electric circular saw and mistakenly cuts off another inmate’s forearms. At least two characters are atomized into a splatter of bloody entrails, and a kidnapper dies from a meat cleaver slammed repeatedly into his skull. Violence is one aspect of “Watchmen,” while nudity is quite another. “Watchmen” is undoubtedly the first mainstream Hollywood movie that presents full frontal male nudity, too. The only genuine superhero, Dr. Manhattan, parades around more often than not in his birthday suit, looking like Obsession cologne product placement. There is probably a message in all this nudity, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

The far-fetched action unfolds one dark, gloomy night with one of these crime fighters, Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of “Grey’s Anatomy”), swaps blows with an assailant who has invaded his high-rise apartment. In an amusing reference to his last movie, director Zach Snyder has designated 300 as the number of Comedian’s apartment. The assailant beats Comedian to a pulp and then propels him through a plate-glass window without a qualm. Comedian plunges many stories to the street below and splatters in a bloody pile of limbs and legs. Comedian’s yellow smiley face badge lands in his spreading pool of blood. Naturally, the N.Y.P.D. doesn’t have a clue. One of Comedian’s fellow crime fighters, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Halley of the 1976 “Bad News Bears”), launches his own investigation. Rorschach warns the rest of his cohorts, Night Owl 2 (Patrick Wilson of “Lakeview Terrace”), Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup of “Almost Famous”), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode of “Match Point”), and Silk Spectre 2 (Valerie Perrine lookalike Malin Akerman of “27 Dresses”) that somebody is out to slaughter them. Unless you’ve perused Moore’s novel, you’ll never solve the mystery.

For the record, Night Owl 2 is the equivalent of Batman, without a Robin, who flies around in a stealth fighter that resembles an electric shaver. Silk Spectre 2 is a butt kicking Wonder Woman clone. She doesn’t need a man to hold her hand, especially when she helps liberate one of her own during a prison break with convicts lining up to smudge her make-up with fists and feet. Rorschach is a pint-sized Humphrey Bogart type who wears a stocking over his face with an ink blot pattern that shifts. He is an uncompromising crime buster who sees life in terms of good and evil with no shades of gray. Ozymandias is the smartest man in the world with a flair for public relations. He has the ability to move around as rapidly as Ricochet Rabbit. Dr. Manhattan is a tall, blue, bald, blank-eyed muscular male who wears eye-liner and mascara, hates wearing clothing and can atomize anything with a thought. Again, Dr. Manhattan is the only superhero in the Watchmen group. Dr. Manhattan’s real-life companions can survive the worst anybody can dish out with no ill effects.

DC Comics published Moore’s graphic, twelve-chapter novel in 1986 and 1987. Currently, DC has released a 5-hour plus motion comic book version of “Watchmen” on DVD that contains more than Hayter and Tse condensed into their complex screenplay. Like the novel, the theatrical “Watchmen” takes place back in 1985. Essentially, “Watchmen” is a science-fiction saga about an alternate version of America. Snyder’s movie condenses over twenty years of costumed crime fighter history during the opening credits. Indeed, “Watchmen” combines elements of “Forrest Gump” and every Oliver Stone movie since “Platoon.” President John Kennedy shakes hands with Dr. Manhattan, while President Richard Nixon exploits Dr. Manhattan as a nuclear deterrent. The story includes JFK’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, with a clear view of his assassin. In the time altered universe of “Watchmen,” America wins the Vietnam War largely through Dr. Manhattan’s intervention.

In the beginning, Dr. Manhattan was ordinary Jewish physicist Jonathan Osterman. He died tragically during an accident at a top-secret, government research lab that disintegrated his body. He manages to reconstitute himself and emerges as America’s chief weapon against the Soviet Union. Nixon dispatches Dr. Manhattan to Vietnam with Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan wins the war. Indeed, Dr. Manhattan is the only genuine super hero with super powers while everybody else is human but very resilient. Despite victory in Vietnam, America still wallows in domestic turmoil that degenerates into chaos and street violence. Hippies plant flowers in the rifle barrels of military policemen who massacre them. The police go on strike and eventually Nixon passes legislation that outlaws vigilante-minded costume clad crime fighters that aren’t employed by the government. Interestingly, the clock that showed the tension between the Soviet Union and the United States is referred to as the Doomsday Clock, a neat concept considering the constant tension between the Soviets and the Americans during the Cold War.
Later, under the Keene Act, Dr. Manhattan and The Comedian are the only costume clad crime fighters who are licensed to perform heroic feats.

Basically, the “Watchmen” plot defies synopsis. Like Moore’s novel, the story boasts enough material for an entire film franchise, but “Watchmen” does an excellent job of bringing all the action together in less than three hours to create a coherent but outlandish parable of an alternate future. The idea that victory in Vietnam would not have made a difference in the American Dream is fairly audacious for any movie. Moreover, Snyder and his scenarists take the concept of vigilante heroes farther than even “The Dark Knight” dared and meditates on the ultimate contradictions involved with these costume clad crime fighters. Furthermore, not all of the Watchmen survive; the Comedian & Rorschach bite the dust. Not only does the Comedian deserve his fate because he raped Sally Jupiter, but he also killed a Vietnamese woman pregnant with his child. The Comedian acquires his scar because of Vietnamese woman. You won’t find stuff like this in any super hero movie. The 9/11 finale with its surprise ending is a mind-blower that will leave you reeling. Like “Forrest Gump,” “Watchmen” inserts several landmark rock songs to underline its multiple messages. “Watchmen” lacks a happy ending and the problems that humanity faces here aren’t simple.