Saturday, 21 March 2009
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: David Hytner & Alex Tse
Starring: Jackie Earle Haley, Malin Ackerman, Patrick Wilson, Billy Crudup & Jeffrey Dean Morgan
First off I must admit I have never read the Watchmen graphic novel (I know what a cardinal sin) and so will not be comparing the movie version to the comic book version, which has no doubt been done a million times over by now. I will look at Watchmen purely on cinematic and action terms. Watchmen comes from some high pedigree and a lot of pre release hype (so much so, I had to make that little statement about how I was going to review it) and while it may not completely live up to the comic book fans hopes (though I’m sure it does to some) and it may never be heralded as the greatest movie ever made, Watchmen is still a damn fine piece of cinema.
Zack Snyder may have his detractors but he makes good films. His Dawn of the Dead remake was excellent (and proved the odd remake can be successful) and his big hit, 300, was a great, adrenaline fuelled piece of comic book action cinema. He matures in gritty storytelling all the while delivering more stylized action cinema in the truly epic Watchmen. A comic book movie really only in the sense that the characters dress up in costumes to fight crime, Watchmen works much more as a deconstruction of the comic book genre but even more as a brilliant whodunit. The setting is an alternate 1985, where Nixon is still President and the USA and USSR are about to go to nuclear war together. The era of the superhero has all but died since their golden era in the 50s and 60s. Many are retired, in nursing homes or have simply gone mad with the pressure of coping with their secret identities and fighting crime. But when one of their many is murdered (The Comedian, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan) the team known as the Watchmen dust off the old costumes and (kind of) reunite to find the killer of their (sort of) friend.
That’s just the basic outline of the plot and the maguffin that sets off the in-depth story of a group of superheroes coming to terms with themselves, their crime fighting identities and the world they live in. Watchmen is not of the Spiderman/Daredevil type of comic book movie and those expecting a simple good vs. evil adventure may be disappointed. There is certainly that element but our heroes are anything but straightforward. Night Owl II (Wilson) has to deal with impotence, Silk Spectre II (Ackerman) lives in the shadow of her mother, the original Silk Spectre (an excellent Carla Gugino) and The Comedian, well, he is just a straight up bastard. Then there is Rorschach (an amazing Jackie Earle Haley) who hidden under an ever shape-shifting mask is so violent in his actions that if he weren’t killing in the name of justice he would only be one step removed from those he hunts. There is also Dr. Manhattan (Crudup) a man blasted by radioactive material and turned into a sort of ever evolving blue demi-God who spends most the movie naked and walking around on Mars. Batman this ain’t.
What sells Watchmen so well is the acting. The cast are on amazing form and inhabit their troubled superheroes with such emotional realism that you often forget about all the CGI madness and flights of fancy. Crudup, Ackerman and Matthew Goode (as the smartest man alive, Ozymandias) are very good while Wilson manages that rare feat of making a superhero gone to seed seem like an every day person. Morgan also performs a career making turn as The Comedian, making you actually care for a man who is, despite fighting for the good guys, not a very nice man. But it is Jackie Earle Haley that steals the show. The former child actor who came out of movie retirement to start giving career best performances (see also Little Children) truly excels here as the tough as nails, gravelled voiced Rorschach. His scenes sear with intensity and the movie steps up a level whenever he is on screen: his prison set segment (“Two nothing. Your move!”) is terrifying and riveting at the same time. It’s an amazing performance, laced with caged emotion and Haley all but owns the movie.
But let’s not forget about the action. Many have been irked by the truncating of the complexity of the graphic novel and the action being more opened up and extended. I can understand this but the action always fits well within the story and the film never rushes to get to it either, the plot taking time, the fights growing out of the situations. And what fights they are. Shot with gusto and flair the fight scenes are brutal and fluid never resorting to quick cut editing or flinching on the violent impact. They are also remarkably sustained and every character gets a chance at a scrap. The best are the hard hitting Comedian’s fight which opens the film and the Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II getting back into the groove by taking out an alleyway full of street thugs. Bone cracking stuff that shows Snyder and his team put as much effort into the action as well as the story, character and visuals.
A remarkable triumph, Watchmen may not be perfect (the Mars bits don’t always fit in smoothly with the rest of the story) but it is a beautifully rendered piece of comic book cinema. An adult tone also helps to elevate it from family comic book fare, meaning the content has not been watered down (have no doubt, this film is violent) and with a cast that give their all means Watchmen is a fully satisfying experience on comic book, action and cinematic terms. Great stuff.