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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

21 - Review: Watchmen

Rejoice, non-existent reader. Here's a break from the shame and political apathy that has beshitted this blog since Sunday. I won't demean us both by including a redundant plot description. That task has harmed keyboards the world over quite enough. What follows is more.... Ian. If you want pseudo-film school bullshit, go read the average movie site's forum. Oh yeah, and there are spoilers.

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The Dark Knight is more divisive than Marmite and anal sex combined. Bat-fans have wasted no time inaugurating it into the modern classic pantheon. To them, it's a masterpiece. To others, it's a fine if over-rated crime picture. Like an internet argument, no understanding has been reached. However, in Watchmen, the opposition have their Chewbacca defense. It and T.D.K. both recast familiar stories in genre garb. Both succeed, but only the former deserves Godfather level acclaim.

The complexity and ambition of Watchmen is dazzling. In 2009, uninitiated teens lured in by the promise of fetish gear and ultraviolence are in for a mindfuck of 2001 proportions. Plenty of reviews have been written for fans of the source material. Thousands of words contextualize director Zack Snyder's achievement in the wake of the projects troubled history. Their rightful place is in the pub. Such matters have little bearing on the actual quality or otherwise of this adaptation.

Watching Watchmen feels like talking to a loudmouth. If you don't adjust yourself, communication breaks down. The first act doesn't help. If not slow, it's confidently paced. There are introductions and reminiscences where biffpowzap action is to be expected. Snyder and writers David Hayter & Alex Tse hue closely to the G.N. This will dictate whether you get comfy or throw the head up and leave. Yes, what's been on the page for decades and what's on film now are very different. Nonetheless, there's little chance that anyone unimpressed by the comic will enjoy this.

The greatest strength of the film is that it is faithful to but not imprisoned by its roots. Despite its length, the narrative rarely sags. Frequent chatting never derails the forward momentum and intrigue. The sense of creeping dread so prominent in the comic is missing. Dr Strangelove style Nixon moments can't compensate for the raw power of blood dripping down a doomsday clock face. Although this and similar elements are translated in other ways, they are problems only to fans and don't hurt the movie. It works fine, as it is. But it also could have been so much better. A consummate understanding of the themes at work make the many dialogue-driven scenes just as engaging as the action based set-pieces. And when the kiddiewinks are (still) laughing at the blue knob, a moral-panic or two will have more than a few nerves wracked.

Anyone dreading a speed-ramp gougefest can uncover their eyes. With the alley/prison battles, Snyder's hand is subtler and more accomplished than ever. It's as stylized as 300, but restrained. The much lauded title sequence is sublime, a perfect blend of exposition and flair yet less arch than a walk-and-talk. Time and place is cock-solid throughout; at times, the music is a little overbearing but its as undeserving of titters as Dr Manhattan's blue langer* or Rorschach's stunningly prejudicial kills. If you're gonna play in the 20th century pop-culture ballpark, why not fill your boots?

The principals are uniformly excellent. As Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan respectively, Jackie Earle Hayley and Billy Crudup demand the loudest applause. Collectively, they take intimidatingly revered roles and make them look easy. Hayley's Rorschach, like Alan Moore's original icon, is a battering ram. He's Wayne Rooney in a trilby and inkblot mask. His speech and actions are clipped. Whether dousing a prisoner to death with boiling chip fat or snarling at the moral vacuum around him, he is sheer economy. Conversely, Crudup handles Manhattan's obtuse ruminations comfortably. He's possibly even more chilling than Rorschach; he doesn't just dispatch people, he destroys them. No hang-up, no second-thought. Both actors also deserve extra credit for their portrayals of the men behind their alter-egos.

Perhaps the greatest triumph, though, is a less glamorous role. As Dan Dreiberg a.k.a. Nite Owl II, Patrick Wilson distinguishes himself as a character actor par excellence. His work here completes a hat-trick of outstanding performances he started in Hard Candy and continued in Little Children. Wilson is the Michael Carrick** of the piece. While his cohorts draw oohs and ahhs, he lends the ensemble a crucially important bridge between the fantastic and the everyday. He's the most accessible figure for Joe Soap, but far from one himself. His cold feet in the face of the law and his own desires is that of a man who fears falling off a horse after years out of the saddle. In overcoming this hurdle, he provides the closest thing the movie offers to a fist-punching moment (though the flame-thrower orgasm was a bit much.) We laugh and cry with him in a way we never do with the others. Having someone do this heavy lifting buys enough goodwill for the daring, unfashionable work going on elsewhere.

I could go on. Hundreds of aborted words yearn to extol the wonders of Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Comedian (movie bastard of the year) and the underrated Malin Ackerman bringing an extra dimension to Laurie, for example. There are also countless grace notes that work without prior knowledge but are sure to get geeks hotter than Carla Gugino. With so much to commend, there are still nits, and this is the time when review law decrees I should pick them. The running time isn't a "problem" on its own steam. It's an inevitability with so much of the book translated to the screen. However, that and the diminished Armageddon threat mentioned above consistently hinder urgency. This will doubtless annoy fans less than the uninitiated but it remains undeniable.

While most of the Antarctic climax is excellent, the destruction of New York is inferior to the original. This Akira style wipeout feels like watching an ITV cut of Pulp Fiction. Jules without "motherfucker" in his arsenal is about as potent as a blue cock without a corresponding scrote-sack.*** That said, Zack Snyder has achieved what many misguided and unambitious people once deemed impossible: he made Watchmen. Better still, he did it with aplomb. It's everything an adaptation should be - faithful yet engaging and fresh.

* Problem with the phallic imagery? Tough.
** Problem with the United analogies? Tougher.
*** See *.

Watch it: now.
Don't watch it: to get a First in Denying Yourself Life's Pleasures 101.
Ranking: 8.5 (Colonel)


Ian Pratt got hungry waiting. Helped himself to some beans. Hope you don't mind.

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