"The Watchmen" **1/2 (162 minutes)

Monday March 2, 2009

One of my favorite films of 2005 was Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez's tour de force film based on Miller's own graphic novels, "Sin City". Starring Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, and Rosario Dawson, this amazing noir movie, for me, set the standard for the genre.

I am not a fan/reader of comic books/graphic novels and went into "The Watchmen" absolutely stone cold-not reading one iota about the plot or background. Other than seeing a short trailer last week on TV, I proceeded to hunker down for the nearly 3 hours of running time for a trip into Brit Allan Moore's ("The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" & "V for Vendetta) alternate universe.

For the purposes of this review, I did a little research: First conceived as a 12 chapter series, "The Watchmen" is the only graphic novel to win the Hugo Award and to appear on Time's 2005 list of "the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present". Once considered unfilmable, director Zack Snyder ("300"), so personally inspired by the series, has undertaken the daunting task of bringing it to the silver screen-a feat highly anticipated by its fan base.

Has his conversion succeeded? That's a question I can't answer, having never read the originals. However, I can comment on the overall experience. On certain levels, it's a dazzling noir-chock full of special effects and glorious set pieces. On other levels, there is just too much going on that if you aren't familiar with plot lines and characters, you might be a bit overwhelmed.

Quite briefly, the film is set mainly in 1985 where Richard Nixon has won a 3rd term (!) mainly because a group of flawed superheros, known as "The Masks", have altered history as we know it. Such alterations, some of which are shown in one of the film's best sequences during the opening credits, include having a hand in The Kennedy Assassination (yes, one of The Masks was present on the grassy knoll), taking care of Woodward & Bernstein, and helping the U.S. win the Vietnam war. Now, amidst the country's rampant paranoia, the Doomsday Clock is ticking down close to the apocalyptic end as the cold war is about to turn into a nuclear war for the entire planet.

The film begins with the murder of one of "The Masks" known as The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who appears throughout the film in flashbacks. Investigating is another mask, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), who believes that each of the superheros are also in danger. You see, The Masks, over the years, have tried to shed their persona and to anonymously mingle into society (especially since The Keene Act specifically outlawed costumed heroes).

With Philip Marlow-like voice over, Rorschach narrates his diary (sounding Clint Eastwood-like) throughout. One by one we are introduced to the history of the other masks which include Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), and Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) who was turned into a nuclear "God" as a result of a laboratory accident. Crudup, starkly bathed in a blue hue, is probably the most interesting character of the lot as he has the capability of replicating himself, as well as instantaneously transporting himself (and others) to Mars.

How the mystery plays out against the larger backdrop of the planet's demise, is going to take a lot of patience and attention. In fact, multiple viewings may be necessary for the unfamiliar novice-if you really want to understand it all.

Word of caution: don't take the kiddies to see this one. The violence, although comic book-like, is extremely graphic. Those, as well as several sex scenes, have generously earned it's "R" rating. Although this all sounds grim, there is humor scattered throughout by screenwriters David Hayter & Alex Tse.

Ultimately, I feel this will appeal more to those who are familiar with the source material than the general viewing public. It is an admirable ambitious achievement, though, that does succeed to elevate this genre to an art form. However, the film is crammed with too much detail and technology to warrant a higher rating.

"The Watchmen" opens on Friday, March 6th in wide release.

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