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Review: Watchmen Works

I know many of you have been waiting to hear my review of the Watchmen movie for a while now. Well, don't blame me, blame the WB embargo on reviews of the film until opening day. So, I was a good boy and waited — and now — here it is…

I loved the Watchmen movie.

It feels good to say that. I've been following the production of this film from the beginning, and all of trailers and video journals made me feel that Zack Snyder and company were going to deliver a film that was not just visually stunning, but one that was faithful to the source material. That journey however, was not without some bumps which had me worried. Here's a rundown of certain aspects of the movie that had me the most concerned.

First: Matthew Goode. The day his costume photos were released I just felt he looked too young and too mousy to play the role. Not the way I pictured how Adrian Vedit aka Ozymandias, smartest man in the world and self-made billionaire, would look. Keep in mind that I wasn't worried about Goode as an actor — he's proven to have the chops on screen many times in films like The Lookout. It's just that he didn't really look the part. But, I trusted Snyder. It seemed that the rest of the cast, although not A-list Hollywood stars seemed to fit well, so I gave his casting the benefit of the doubt.

As footage and trailers were slowly released from the WB publicity machine they all seemed to have one thing in common — little to no Goode footage or dialog. There was even some hubbub about him using a German accent for the character that made me cringe a little too. But when I finally got to see Goode's Veidt on screen I was pleased to see that he played the character with a quiet confidence. Goode carries himself though the film with a steady air of sophistication and condescension to those around him that is subtle and nuanced. Even the accent — which shifts from one that's American in front of the press and public figures to one with a hint more German around his friends — didn't bother me. My one small complaint was that Goode's dialog often stumbled over his accent and his words came out a bit mumbly at times.

My second concern was the film's length. Several month's ago Zack Snyder told the press that this cut was 3 hours and 10 minutes long and the studio was forcing him to make some heavy edits. At first, we all thought that the primary motivation WB had in cutting the film down was to squeeze in more showing at theaters, but as it turns out it was so the film would fit on IMAX projectors which have a limit on running time.

The film was finally cut down to 2 hours and 36 minutes — a whopping 34 minutes less than what was intended by the director. Yes, the film still plays well at this shorter length, but at times, the pacing seemed rushed and cuts between some scenes felt abrupt or truncated. Certain scenes that were cut (such as a few with the original Nite Owl played by Steven McHattie) took away some depth and character development that would have added an extra bit of impact to the overall story.

My third concern was the action in the film. For those of you who have read the graphic novel, you know there is very little action in the comic. But Snyder's trailers seemed to be painting a different picture. Others were also afraid that, not only would there be lots of extra action, but that Snyder would over use the slow motion and fast motion in his action scenes that he became associated with after 300, and that he would overdo some of the violence as well.

But the action and fight sequences were never drawn out or overdone; slow motion was used appropriately and sparingly — this is no 300. Some of the characters display strength and prowess that as regular people they would not likely possess, but, deconstruction aside, this is still a superhero movie. The choreographed action scenes never cross the line into Matrix territory, but add to the drama and gravitas of the story.

Now, the film has some “surprises” when it comes to it's violence — there's more blood and gore in this film than what your would get in Spiderman, and a knees get busted in a grisly manner that wouldn't even be seen in The Dark Knight — but that's really the whole point here. It's not violence and gore for the sake of it. It's there to show the stark reality and consequences of real world violence and how that real crime fighting is very different than the “Bam, Boff, Wham” of the comic book world.

I can see how some might feel it's a bit over-the-top, or too graphic, but if you cringe a little, I'm pretty sure that's the effect Snyder wanted to elicit. You can cheer and smile the whole time Iron Man gives it to the bad guys and forget that people, albeit bad people, are getting hurt. But when Dan causes the forearm of a gang member to snap in half and poke through his skin you're reminded that “real” crime fighting is a messy business.

My final concern was the film's changed ending. Fans have know for months that the “squid” wasn't going to make it in to the film, and that the “McGuffin,” as Watchmen's co-creator Dave Gibbons referred to it, was going to change. But the new ending worked very well. It managed to get across all the ambiguous themes of morality that the climax of the graphic novel had, with the added depth of wrapping one of the main character's story arc into it that was very satisfying to see on screen. Granted these changes make it less of the Watchmen that we are familiar with on the pages of the comic, but it still works, and in some ways, might resonate better, especially with the uninitiated.

All of the actors performances are well done and some are even quite superb. Patrick Wilson deftly portrays the nerdy Dan Drieberg aka Nite Owll II, and at times seems to be channeling the defenseless charm and vulnerability of Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart. Jeffrey Dean Morgan delivers as Edward Blake and manages to let the character's humanity permeate his performance even when he's doing terrible things. Malin Akerman is the weakest link in the cast, but that's not saying she wasn't adequate in the role. In fairness to her, Laurie is the one characters in the comic that seemed a bit lost and buried in the narrative, so I'm not surprised the same thing happened to the character on screen.

The two standout performances come from Billy Crudup who plays Dr. Manhattan aka Jon Osterman and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach aka Walter Kovacs. It would be easy for any actor to get lost within a CGI rendered performance of an almost emotionless, still character, but Crudup manages to bring depth and heart to the character through a subtle and even performance. Haley just knocks it out of the park as Rorschach and brings the character seamlessly from the pages of the comic to the screen. His moments without the mask are as chilling as they are riveting, as Haley emotes more with a subtle stare or slight vocal inflection that marks the talent of a supreme actor.

Larry Fong, Alex McDowell and the rest of the art department have done a wonderful job of creating Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's world on-screen right down to the palette of colors John Higgins used for the comic series. There's a nice balance of grit and grime that grounds the film in reality with a nice layering of comic book sheen that helps transcend the ordinary and elevate the film into a world that's, well, Watchmen-y. Combine that with Snyder's wonderful way of blocking each shot like it's a single work of art and you end up with a movie that is just visually stunning. Hell, you could watch this movie with the audio off and still derive plenty of enjoyment from it.

All in all, Snyder effectively delivers the world of Watchmen. He manages to take all of the important elements of the story and it's characters and fit them into the narrative — which is no easy task. Just ask the countless writers and directors who for over 20 years tried to bring Watchmen to the screen but couldn't.

Some may complain that Snyder's style may lack subtlety, or that his missed the mark in some of his music choices (Leonard Cohen's Hallejluiah during Dan and Laurie's sex scene for example), but these bold choices mark the mind of a confident and unapologetic filmmaker who doesn't pull any punches — which in Hollywood today is unbelievably refreshing. Some of his choices are ironic or a bit tongue-in-cheek, but don't confuse irony with being campy. Those who do chuckle at some of these moments in the film just may not get what Snyder is trying to do, and, granted, some may say that is the fault of the director and not the audience. I say that if you are willing to really watch this movie like it's an art film — forget the marketing, the hype and any prejudices you may have against Snyder — you just might appreciate these choices and have a better experience with the film.

So go out and watch Watchmen. In fact, I recommend that you watch it more than once as I got more out of a second viewing in the same manner repeat readings of the graphic novel reveal more to me on each reading. And whether you end up liking it or not, one thing is for sure — Watchmen is a movie experience will likely never forget.

3.6.09 Source: WatchmenComicMovie.

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