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Columnist
'Watchmen' captures look of cult graphic novel, but not its soul
By Dann Gire | Daily Herald Film Critic

Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson) quells a prison riot as Silk Specter II (Malin Ackerman) advances in the awaited film "Watchmen."

 

Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach

 

Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan

 

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Published: 3/4/2009 3:35 PM

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Darker than "The Dark Knight," steelier than "Ironman," Zack Snyder's grim doomsday drama "Watchmen" finally arrives on the silver screen with the visuals and existential dialogue from its graphic novel source material intact, but with precious little of its soul.

The film's release had been held up for several months after 20th Century Fox sued Warner Bros., claiming it owned the film rights to the original 1986 DC Comics cult novel, illustrated by Dave Gibbons and written by Alan Moore, who ended up pulling his name off this hard-R-rated, big-budget, non-A-list star production.

Fans of the graphic novel might consider this rejection to be slight overkill. After all, Snyder's movie recreates Gibbons' panels right down to their colors and compositions, and it faithfully adheres to Moore's ramped-up discourses on the meaning of being human and the role superheroes have in this septic tank of a world.

Nonetheless, Snyder's film, adapted by David Hayter and Alex Tse, would have benefited from a little less faithfulness. The philosophical exchanges that enhance the graphic novel feel forced and labored out of the mouths of actors. Then, when Snyder ups the violence factor by tossing a kajillion gallons of blood on walls and floors, "Watchmen" becomes exactly the sort of action story the novel avoids.

Worse, scenes of flawed and aging superheroes beating, brutalizing, torturing and executing human vermin pander to the very fascistic bloodlust that Moore's story criticizes. Sadly, during a full-house screening of "Watchmen" Tuesday night, the biggest applause went to a scene where a psychotic superhero named Rorschach (played by a growly Jackie Earle Haley with evolving ink blot patterns on his face) coldly torments and executes a helpless villain. Nice.

Set in a parallel universe during the year 1985 as the world hinges on nuclear Armageddon, "Watchmen" opens with a retired superhero named The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) being tossed out of the window of his New York high rise, along with a blood-splattered smiley-face button.

Rorschach suspects that someone has it in for the "masks," all of the vigilante superheroes who once thrived until President Richard Nixon (elected to a third term) banished them under the Keane Act, only briefly mentioned.

Rorschach attempts to warn his former fellow Watchmen: Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), a supersmart golden boy who has amassed a fortune by marketing himself; Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), a wealthy do-gooder with a podlike flying submarine; Silk Specter II (Malin Ackerman), a sexy, vinyl-swaddled action figure who took over the legacy of her supermom (Carla Gugino); and the enigmatic Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), resembling a so-cold-he's-blue naked Academy Award Oscar unafraid to show what Oscar's broad sword has been concealing for the past 81 years.

Only Dr. Manhattan seems to have real superpowers, created by a freak scientific accident. The others can jump, punch and kick, but only the Doc can visit Mars, create entire cities from scratch, teleport himself and others wherever wants and tell his own future.

Like "The Dark Knight," these "Watchmen" constantly deal with ethical dilemmas, but not with a Gandhi-like superhero who refuses to kill. These middle-aged superheros are real bad-butts, white rapists and killers and misogynists who apparently don't allow African-American or Chinese superdudes into their club.

Snyder, who previously directed the stylish hit "300" and the phenomenally scary remake of "Dawn of the Dead," copies the look and words of Moore's novel, but it's a superficial translation laden with an awkward soundtrack including misused established tunes ("Sounds of Silence" from "The Graduate" and "Prophesies" from "Koyaanisqatsi") and one good song (Nena's "99 Luftballoons") in a completely wrong place.

At a hefty 162 minutes, "Watchmen" will make you believe Dr. Manhattan when he says, "Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends."

"Watchmen"

Rating: 2½ stars

Starring: Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Malin Ackerman, Carla Gugino, Matthew Goode

Directed by: Zack Snyder

Other: A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Rated R (language, nudity, sexual situations, violence). 162 minutes.