If you only read one graphic novel in your lifetime, make it “Watchmen” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I’ve been saying this for years, to the annoyance of my friends, but seriously, it lives up to its prestigious reputation. On paper, “Watchmen” is thrilling, complex stuff, but as a movie, its an ambitious mixed bag, as visually rich as you’d hope, but still a dumbed-down adaptation of brilliant source material. I’ll try to judge the film as a stand-alone effort, but its hard when the graphic novel set the bar so high.

A group of masked avengers and one superhero are known as The Watchmen, crime fighters who not only nail criminals but assist the U.S. government in fighting the war in Vietnam. Years later, long after their glory days, someone is murdering them one by one, with the black sheep of the group, a psychopath named Rorschach, attempting to solve the mystery and put the team back together. This all takes place in an alternate world where, in 1985, America won the Vietnam War, costumed heroes are pop culture figures and Richard Nixon is still President.

Director Zack Snyder’s film has superb f/x, some engaging performances, haunting moments and one sequence, depicting the origin of Dr. Manhattan, is one of the most powerful of the year. Patrick Wilson and Malin Akerman make an engaging pair of crime fighters, Billy Crudup is hypnotic as the nude, creepy, god-like Dr. Manhattan, Jackie Earl Haley makes Rorschach both repellent and somehow endearing and Carla Gugino is underused but has a great closing scene.

On the downside, some of the acting is uneven (Matthew Goode, cast as the world’s smartest man, looks completely bored), there’s too much slow-motion (enough for a kung fu movie but too much for this one), the soundtrack choices are odd (like a murder scene strangely set to Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable”), the actor playing Nixon looks like he’s wearing a bad Halloween mask and the film is very long but not long enough. This material needs more time to develop, with several intriguing supporting characters given cool introductions then shoved into the background.

It’s more violent than the graphic novel: for example, instead of a character merely burning to death, the film has him hacked to pieces with a meat cleaver. This is an unnecessary addition, as if Snyder wanted to outdo the gore level of his “300”. Whether you’re squeamish or not, please do not take the little ones to see this. The R-rating has once again been stretched to the tightest point imaginable.

The shocking, funny and surprising climax of the graphic novel has been replaced with a standard good guy/bad guy slug fest and, instead of feeling engrossed and elated, you walk away feeling something is missing.

It’s worth seeing at least once, particularly for any scene where the stunning Dr. Manhattan is the focus, but this is an uneven experience. Snyder apparently cut his movie by 30-minutes, with lots of additional footage to be released later on. That said, even with plot holes and characters getting fleshed out in a longer cut, I’m still not certain Snyder, with his style-over-substance approach to filmmaking, was the best director for this material. Had Ridley Scott or Tim Burton had their hands on this, it could’ve been more risk-taking, challenging and better developed. As is, it’s merely a well made comic book movie and not a classic. Unless the eventual longer cut is a lost masterpiece, I’d like to see another filmmaker give “Watchmen” a try in the near future.

Score: ** and a half stars (1-5 Star Scale)

-originally published in Maui Time Weekly