Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup

  4 out of 5 stars
  Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

The "Watchmen's" world is dark, very dark indeed. It rains most of the time. When it doesn't, the skies are gray or the action takes place during the blackest of nights. Heroes long for the old days or cower in their lonely abodes, waiting to die.

"Watchmen" takes place in a world where Richard Nixon has been re-elected for a third term, and there are serious concerns that the U.S. and Soviet Union are moments away from launching into a nuclear war that would devastate the planet. The United States hopes a mysterious, godlike, mostly naked blue-skinned superhero named Dr. Manhattan will intercede on their behalf. Manhattan had saved the day once before. He turned himself into a 100-foot indestructible army, leading U.S troops in a terrifying rout of the enemy that ended the Vietnam War.

Time has otherwise been cruel to the Watchmen and their predecessors, "The Minutemen." Many of the Minutemen, a group of costumed crime fighters who'd formed in the 30s to combat criminals, have met ignominious fates. Dollar Bill caught his cape in a revolving door and was perforated by bank robbers; Mothman lost his grip on reality and was cocooned in an asylum, and when the decidedly lesbian Silhouette came out of the sexual shadows, she and her lover were scandalously murdered.

The second generation of heroes, known as "The Watchmen" includes Dr. Manhattan, Nite Owl II, Silk Spectre II, Ozymandias, and Rorschach. The Watchmen have likewise outlived their usefulness and scattered. As the film begins, the Minutemen's most vile, violent and sadistic member, The Comedian (Robert Downey look-alike Jeffery Dean Morgan) is brutally beaten and thrown from his umpteenth story apartment. Since he's one of those superheroes who can't fly, The Comedian's landing proves to be fatal.
Convinced the Watchmen will be the next to be exterminated, Rorschach (gnarly Jackie Earle Haley) warns the other heroes to watch their costumed backs. Since the others view Rorschach as a paranoid sociopath, his warnings are ridiculed and go unheeded. Genius times two Ozymandias (fey Matthew Goode), the only Watchmen to reveal his true identity, continues his work toward a greener planet and world peace. Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup, looking like a nude blue Mr. Clean), further immerses himself in his research, much to the consternation of his girlfriend, Laurie Jupiter, a/k/a Silk Spectre II (limber but lousy Malin Akerman), who grows tired of his emotional detachment and leaves him for old friend Dan Dresiberg, the former Nite Owl II (dull and dweeby Patrick Wilson).

During a TV interview, an ex-girlfriend accuses Dr. Manhattan of causing the cancer that killed his former colleagues and will soon take her life as well. She claims the radiation the blue doc gives off that makes him a supernatural being eventually kills anyone that comes in contact with him. Manhattan may be detached from Laurie Jupiter, but he can still feel guilt, so he exiles himself to Mars, vowing to never return to earth.

An attempt to kill Ozymandias goes array. (In one of those "oh wow" moments, a certain car magnate takes one through the noggin instead). Rorschach is framed for the murder of a former adversary and imprisoned with many of the criminals he sent to the can.   

The rest of the story deftly pulls together the disbanded and dispirited heroes toward a series of common goals: freeing Rorschach, getting Dr. Manhattan to believe that mankind is worth saving, finding a way to clear his name, figuring out who wants them dead and why, and preventing a worldwide nuclear war. It's a tall order, but just watch them pull it off.

Director Zack Snyder took a huge risk by fielding a virtual no name cast. Guess it's a case of not wanting a star on board whose celebrity might overwhelm the story. It's a sound strategy and it works to some extent, but when the most recognizable marquee names are Stephen McHattie, (who's days as a leading man are over, plus he's only in one scene) and Carla Guigino, (recklessly aged or primped to look like Bettie Page), your story had better airtight, and"Watchmen" springs a leak whenever Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II slow things down with their junior prom romance sidebar. The heroic lovers raise eyebrows during a bone breaking, neck twisting, gut kicking scene in which they literally wipe the floor with a couple dozen convicts, and they'll boost your temperature with a tryst straight out of a soft core Cinemax flick, but they're as both bland as Cottage Cheese Man. Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II are a waste of supernatural powers. Actually, they don't have any super powers, so they're just a waste.

Matthew Goode (Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias) struts and purses his lips as if he's on a runway, rather than running a multi-million dollar empire. He looks like Dana Carvey about to break into fits of laughter, and is saddled with having his genius discussed rather than displayed. Imagine Paul Lynde as a superhero. Yeah, he's not so Goode.

The character of The Comedian is anything but funny. His answer to everything is a fist or a bullet. He's hateful, and when you discover the reasons why he's a sadist in the guise of a hero, you still won't forgive him. He's a boorish drunk with no scruples who guns down a Vietnamese woman he impregnated and tries to rape Silk Spectre I to boot. When he's not acting like a horny caveman, he's emptying magazines of ammo into unsuspecting crowds - and loving it. In short, this dude is severely bent. I didn't like The Comedian - but I did appreciate Jeffrey Dean Morgan's ability to make him a completely despicable.

Jackie Earle Haley (chilling as "Sugar Boy" in the remake of "All the King's Men") memorably takes on Rorschach, a hero without any particular super powers other than the ability to be annoying and make his mask change shape to suit his mood. Rorschach shares The Comedian's smack first and think about it later penchant for violence. A prime and disturbing for instance is when Rorschach is wrongfully imprisoned. Does he negotiate with the criminals he put away? Beg for mercy? No. The first time another prisoner teases him while they're waiting on line at the cafeteria, Rorschach breaks down a wall and pours a vat of boiling oil over him. Throwing down the gauntlet, he screams at the other inmates: "You don't understand! I'm not locked in here with you; you're locked in here with me!" Subsequent mad acts of cruelty prove him right. For reasons known only to Haley and the producers, he adopted a harsh, sandy speaking voice that brings to mind Clint Eastwood's later roles or McGruff the Crime Dog. Haley's gravely tone grates and captivates, especially since he provides the film's unnecessary narration. (You don't have someone talk about what's going on the screen fellas. Let the action speak for itself.) Rorschach's cynical, this world sucks attitude plunges the film into a dark state that no amount of heroics can undo, but Haley is superb in displaying Rorschach's feelings of anger, insecurity, and betrayal.

Billy Crudup literally gives a glowing performance as Dr. Manhattan, making a case for computerized actors. Its obvious Crudup is cut up - the computer generated version of Crudup has his head and voice but not his body, which was modeled after fitness junky Greg Plitt. I didn't need to see Dr. Manhattan's itty bitty bright blue penis flapping in the atmosphere or view his flexing buttocks. You'd think one of the most enlightened creatures in the universe would dress in a modest monk's robe, rather than be a nudist. But Crudup has got his crud up (sorry I had to put that in somewhere). He's asked to voice an all-knowing, but emotionally drained perfect being. Instead of sounding authoritative (maybe James Earle Jones was busy), he does the opposite, speaking in quiet, measured tones, going against type. The doctor is in!  

The downer point of view of the script may send you scurrying for therapy, but you'll appreciate the visuals, particularly the many flashbacks that are often more interesting than the present day doomsday plot. Dr. Manhattan's creation is a CG marvel, as is his god-like assault on the Viet Cong and the scenes of his seclusion on Mars.

Snyder makes use of the soundtrack of our lives (or at least mine) to chronicle the passage of time. As the movie begins, the story of The Minutemen is told in flashbacks as Dylan's nasal fart-in-the-wind voice intones, "The Times They Are A-Changin.'" We see heroes' lives unfold as they pose for photos, die in a hail of bullets, or, in the case of The Comedian, alter history as he crouches in a grassy knoll in Dallas early one afternoon. Nena's "99 Luftballoons" wafts through the air as Nite Owl II and Silk Spectre II renew their friendship over dinner:

Silk Spectre II:  I'm sorry. I invite you out to dinner for a few laughs, but there
don't seem to be that many laughs around these days.
Nite Owl II
: What do you expect? The Comedian's dead.

As The Comedian is laid to rest on a sad, misty day, Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence" serves as his departing hymn. K.C. and the Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man" takes on a much more malevolent meaning as The Comedian guns down innocent protesters:

Ozymandias: What's happened to us? What happened to the American dream?
The Comedian: What happened to the American dream? It came true. You're
lookin' at it!

Appropriately, it's Jimi Hendrix's definitive version of Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" that plays in the background as the heroes head to Antarctica for a final confrontation.

"Watchmen's" dark, pessimistic point of view attracted me. Frankly, I'm tired of feckless superheroes like Spiderman and Superman, dudes with perfect smiles and perfect lives who always get the perfect girl. Granted, superheroes committing suicide, cowering or murdering each other may not attract or amuse the masses, but a movie in which heroes act more like you and me is, if nothing else, different and worth watching.

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