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Zack Snyder's Watchmen: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(Warner Bros. Pictures)


Friday, March 06, 2009

Directed by Zack Snyder
(Warner Bros.)

Reviewed by Bruce Bennett

“Dan,” urges a past crime-busting crony of formerly retired, recently reactivated superhero Dan Dreiberg aka Nite Owl near the climax of Zack Snyder’s new movie Watchmen, “grow up!” Based on the popular 12-issue DC Comics series turned extravagantly praised graphic novel, Watchmen has seen a two-decade and, thanks to an eleventh-hour lawsuit, serially suspenseful journey from page to screen. The result has been twofold: ramped-up expectations within the books’ core fan constituency and, arguably, an exaggeratedly lofty canonical positioning for writer Alan Moore (who has disowned this and all big-screen adaptations of his work) and artist Dave Gibbons’s original creation. By subjecting a meta-fictional group of costumed heroes (most loosely based on DC and Marvel Comics characters) to the rigors and disappointments of actual contemporary history and embellishing this playfully grim vision with pop-culture references encompassing everything from Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale’s solo recordings to the real-life headline-making tragedy of Sixties New York City murder victim Kitty Genovese and the neighbors who infamously ignored her screams, Moore and Gibbons sought to make the superhero comic itself grow up.

An opening montage set to a Bob Dylan song establishes an alternate story universe in which the existence of one actual superpowered American (the rest of the two loose groupings of superheroes on hand, one established in the Forties, the other in the Sixties, are mere mortals) has consolidated right-wing political power. So well, in fact, that in the 1985 in which the bulk of both film and book take place, Nixon is still president and nuclear Armageddon appears mere days away. Snyder in collaboration with screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse reconfigure V-E Day, the Zapruder film, the Apollo moon walk and the final days of the war in Vietnam to fit a brave new old world where most of the mistakes and accompanying anxieties that defined America after WWII are either rectified or much worse, with such brisk craftsmanship that the film initially feels like a dystopian Forrest Gump.

As a media-fed hysteria literally counts down to doomsday, alone in his bachelor pad Edward Blake, aka the Comedian — a retired “masked adventurer” in the PC parlance of the imaginary times — gets a preview of oblivion when an assassin fatally tosses him out a 30-story window onto the rain-slick New York sidewalk below. Blake’s murder is no mean feat. We’ve already seen his trigger finger directly contribute to Lyndon Johnson’s surprise ascendance to power in 1963 and have caught glimpses of Blake helping to turn the tide in Southeast Asia in the United States’ favor with smirk, cigar, and flamethrower. It’s also no coincidence. Blake’s former colleague Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), the only one of their kind that didn’t hang up his mask by government decree, senses a conspiracy.

Duty-bound to his ex-brothers at arms, Rorschach makes the rounds to warn the men and woman with whom he used to prune the weed of crime that their days may be numbered, perhaps even more so than humankind’s. Dreiberg, Rorschach’s ostensible former partner, is galvanized back into costume and eventually joins in the investigation. Dr. Manhattan (played by a substantially digitally augmented Billy Crudup) receives the news with the same heady indifference he appears to have applied to everything since a late Fifties nuclear accident gave him the god-like powers that changed the course of US history. For Dr. Manhattan’s live-in girlfriend Sally Jupiter aka Silk Specter (Malin Akerman), her omnipotent (literally in one boudoir scene) beau’s ebbing personal connection with humanity drives her from Manhattan’s bed, back into costume and into Nite Owl’s arms. The police investigation into Blake’s death and a well-executed frame-up in turn makes Rorschach suspect number one. Mounting evidence strongly indicates otherwise, especially when “world’s smartest man” Ozymandias, an ex-hero whose crime-fighting power has apparently evolved into a superhuman gift for corporate branding, nearly falls victim to his own assassination attempt.

The big-screen Watchmen is essentially a whodunit, though “why?” figures more prominently by the end. In addition to streamlining Moore and Gibbons’ digressive 12-issue canvas, Snyder and company expend a lot of energy to earn the film its R rating. This is a very bloody enterprise. But then again vigilantism, whether in costume or street clothes, is a violent calling. While Snyder exercises the same penchant for, well, cartoonish bloodletting that helped make his previous film 300 unwatchable, on the upside, unlike the mostly green-screened sandwiching of live actors and computer generated imagery of 300, Watchmen doesn’t feel and look like it was shot in a digital closet. The film’s back lot set recreations of pre-Giuliani Manhattan (the place, not the character) are particularly well detailed and lived-in looking.

Outside of Haley’s turn as Rorschach — masked or unmasked, a remarkably vivid and strangely winning personification of the intersection of monosyllabic knee-jerk conservatism, self-delusion and sociopathy — the cast generally flounders on a raft of exposition-heavy words bobbing in an uncaring sea of ambitious visuals. More’s the pity as the underlying messy three-dimensional humanity of a group of people who uphold unambiguous notions of justice was one of the central kicks of the Watchmen book and of the various and sundry revisionism-tinged comics that have stocked newsstands since Stan Lee’s early Sixties heyday.




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