By Chase Kahn
As a devout follower of the graphic novel written by the bearded hermit Alan Moore, I had extremely mixed feelings going in to see Zach Snyder's Watchmen. Both leerily suspicious and fervently impatient, after seeing it, I remain firmly where I stood before I saw it. The film elicits so many mixed feelings that by the time it's over, you won't know what to think, except that the instant-gratification of the source material is not there.
The first hour of the film -- from the death of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) to the origin of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) -- is off-the-page Nietzsche-ian brilliance, mainly because Snyder has no agenda but to tell these characters' back stories and thus this section of the film is most tonally in tact, restrained and free of Snyder's impulsive testosterone.
Unfortunately, as the time passes -- scene by scene, minute by minute -- so does the integrity of Alan Moore's source novel until it's damn near full-blown nihilistic camp. You can thank Snyder and his fetishistic approach to style and violence for that, not to mention his taste in music. The brutish brutality of the opening Comedian murder -- somewhat grounded in realism -- soon takes a back seat to a half-cool/half-ridiculous prison breakout fight scene. Then, the final action set-piece has a near Matrix quality that's just inappropriately excessive. Keep in mind the beauty of "Watchmen" is that, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), these are all human beings with an edge, but none of them have superpowers -- The Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) even has a bit of a beer gut.
For all of its failures, Jackie Earle Haley's Rorschach is as sharp-edged, grungy, and enjoyable as the biggest "Watchmen" fan could ever hope for. The character is a sponge, he has soaked up all of the filth, anguish, and sins that the world has to offer. We feel that through Haley's work and it's easily the best quality of the film, the most searingly accurate translation to the screen in the 163 minutes, without a doubt. Next is the title sequence -- set to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin" -- which effortlessly captures the mood and the tone of the novel in about 4 minutes. What would the world be like with masked superheroes? We would win Vietnam in a week, the police would be useless, and therefore, disgruntled, and Nixon would be elected to a third term. Unfortunately, the majority of the film beyond this point and the exhaustive backstories (welcomed in this corner) is pure, dressed-up baloney. It's very clear that in adapting the novel to the screen, Zach Snyder made it a point to be as slavish to Moore's masterpiece as possible -- the result is something that never moves and feels like cohesive film.
On paper, "Watchmen" is a transcendant, medium-altering piece of fiction. On the big screen, its minor flaws are magnified and its successes are dwarfed, it's a story with big ideas handled with small-minded execution. -- at times, it's just as campy and convoluted as the superhero stories Moore was trying to indict back in 1985.