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Watchmen:
The Complete Motion Comic
by Tom Stechschulte
(Discounted DVD)
. "Watchmen"

To set the modality of this soaring sci-fi concept thriller, director Zack Snyder ("300") plays Bob Dylan's best rendition of "Times They Are A-Changin" in its totality. The strength of the singer's voice at the time when his inventions were mastering the musical universe, and the fullness of the song providing bravely studied thematic emphasis, is an injection of power into an exaggerated scheme of the world circa 1985 that's more Dr. Strangelove on the brink of nuclear annihilation than anything we may recall from the historical times and prevailing notorieties. Liberties are taken, to say the least.

Running a song for its full length also puts us on notice that Snyder is in no hurry to expound on his subject, which had to be a challenging adaption by screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse from the graphic novel by Dave Gibbons, published by DC Comics. That origin is fully served with its emphasis on the psychic makeup of the heros, if not (for some) too fully served.

One of the more pronounced liberties is the role of Richard Nixon (Robert Wisden with a long, curved nose prosthetic) having won a third term and, in reaction to a threatening Russia, setting the symbolic nuclear doomsday clock within 10 minutes of its final hour. Accordingly, he declares DefCon 2, just one increment away from a full defense posture against an enemy. But, as far as the superheroes who have been in retired residence in the city of Gotham, it's more than symbolic. To them the threat stirs the DNA fabric that ties them together in the protection of the country they love, as well as the planet itself.

Though having been in a state of inertia for a period when their services to mankind were halted by a misguided presidential edict making masks unlawful, their powers are intact--loudly and viciously demonstrated by feats of speed, massive force and the ability to withstand piledriver impacts with little more injury than if they were hit by a stiff powder puff (though the whacks on the soundtrack and the evidence of our eyes through masterful CGI handiwork tells us differently).

With that in mind, the superhero community is shocked when they learn that the crude and nasty Edward Blake, aka The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), has been thrown through the high-rise building where he lived, splattered and killed by an unidentified but superhuman attacker who could only have come from the Watchmen's own ranks.

The Watchmen posse's most towering figure is the commanding Dr. Manhattan, aka Jon Osterman, who stands nude most of the time, emanating a blue aura, fascinating us with a quiet presence of ultimate power. Having been given that power by an accidental molecular transference, he is capable of realigning the atoms of being, teletransporting himself and others to destinations of his choosing, including other planets, like Mars. Billy Crudup exudes a magisterial charisma in this role--until his beam fades under the dimming weight of a two and three quarter-hour film. You reach a point when your interest in the idealized musculature, the penal presence and the deliberative delivery becomes more than you ever wanted.

Another figure of compelling interest, as well as sympathy, is the feisty, sometimes pushy and always dangerous Rorschach, who derives his moniker from the fact that his linen face mask harbors an alive ink stain that never stops moving. Score another point for the CG effects team. While I had misgivings about the critical uproar over Jackie Earle Haley when he appeared in "Little Children" after a thirteen year lapse, he more than vindicates the praise in his rendering of this tough superhero who delivers the best laugh line in the pic.

But its not all sci-fi power and heroic intentions. Two strains of emotion weave through the story as Laurie Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman, "27 Dresses"), a lady whose sharply defined facial structure is an iconic model for the 2-D world of a comicbook artist, tries to work out her relationship with Dr. Manhattan only to discover a warmer tie to Dan Dreiberg, aka Nite Owl (sturdy Patrick Wilson). Dreiberg enjoys the trappings (and splendid boy-toy Owl hovercraft) of wealth, and some complexities of self-doubt, profiling dangerously close to Batman. The heavy emotional load Laurie carries also applies to her difficult problems with mom, aged Sally Jupiter, aka Silk Spectre I (Carla Gugino) who has a lot to explain about her daughter's parentage and the ongoing neurosis that lends the work an important aspect of its noirish flavor.

Working from his own private pedestal is the supposed smartest man in the universe, corporate titan Adrian Veidt, aka Ozymandius, against whose power and brilliance hardly anyone stands a chance of meeting and prevailing. Good thing he's on the side of good, though it's his own version of that concept, which doesn't quite agree with the perception of his lessers.

Dylan's track isn't alone. Other iconic era-pointers work their way through the drama, though with diminishing impact. There's a complete reading of "The Sounds of Silence" by Simon & Garfunkel, the indelibly haunting "Hallelujah" from Leonard Cohen (wish they had used his version), and briefer excerpts by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Nat "King" Cole and Richard Wagner. The score by composer Tyler Bates ("Grindhouse") matches his work on "300," with at least one collaborative piece with composer Philip Glass ("The Hours").

The big question is, was this movie doomed from the start? Actually, I don't care that the full measure of devotion granted to so many principal characters--jammed into 161 minutes from Gibbons' 12 novels--leads to dogging moments of incoherence and a yawn or two.

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Weighing that negative factor against the visual genius--(production design by Alex McDowell, effects, animation and architectural creation by John DesJardin and Sony Pictures Imageworks and others; cinematography by Larry Fong); the superb action concepts and choreography; the ultimate story and revenge payoffs; the in-your-musical-cortex use of songs; Snyder's studious enjoyment of detail and the audacity of his attempt)--on balance I come down on the side of the male teen-young men demographic for which the appeal is strongest. I have no qualms about saying, "count me among 'em." For us, "Watchmen" goes to the positive side of the critical scales.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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