I’m still not clear on what I think about this Russian vampire opus that works on its own particular mythology, and yet I saw it a full two days ago. After filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov’s Escape From Afghanistan in 1994 and a couple of movies under the auspices of exploitation master Roger Corman, Bekmambetov came into his own with Night Watch (or Nochnoi Dozor in Russian), which proved a big hit in Mother Russia and afforded him a shot at international status.
In terms of imagination and filmmaking skill, Bekmambetov certainly merits that shot. Still, he seems a bit lacking in the realm of dramatic sense, at least judging by this undeniably fascinating and inventive work.
In fairness, it must be noted that this is but part one of a trilogy of movies, and based on the ending to Night Watch, the film does appear to be 114 minutes of setup to get to the real story. And I will freely admit that, while the pseudo-conclusion here lacks the emotional thrust of that of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s still strangely satisfying — and also bleakly, and distinctly, Russian.
Indeed, the movie’s inherent Russianness may be its strongest point. For those of us who find Andrei Tarkovsky a little on the slow side, it’s nice to see that there’s life in Russian cinema after Eisenstein. Granted, that life is deeply indebted to Western pop culture — hands up, anyone who doesn’t note a whiff of Harry Potter about the magical owl, or detect the influence of the Hellblazer comics (turned into Constantine after Night Watch came out) on the film’s overall setup. And yet, the final result is intensely Russian.
Though a product of the post-Soviet Union era, Night Watch is deeply infused with the kind of grubbiness associated with everyday Soviet life, and nothing could be more like the old Soviet bureaucracy than a universe where the warring forces of “light” and “darkness” are set up like government offices, and where anything is permissible with the right official documentation and permit. The film may not be especially deep (it’s certainly not as deep as it seems to think), but there’s no denying that something is going on under the surface when good and evil are bogged down in paperwork, allow each other to exist because the alternative is mutual destruction, and seem little more than corrupt sides of the same coin. (There may well be a Cold War parable in there somewhere.)
Make what you will of the boss of the good forces operating a power-and-light company while the head of the forces of evil plots his strategies via videogames.
The basic premise is solid enough: an age-old truce between the two sides. The armistice works on an apparently evolving basis, with humankind having free will (humans must choose between good and evil, and not be tricked or forced into one or the other); to watch for infractions, evil patrols the days and good patrols the nights. Likewise solid is the film’s re-monkeyed vampire lore.
And I certainly cannot fault Night Watch‘s inventiveness. That said, partway through it’s hard not realize that what appears to be the plot line — a cursed woman causing a vortex of bad luck that will create massive destruction — is really tangential to the central story. (At least it is in this movie; its proper place may become clearer in the next). At that point, Night Watch starts to feel like it’s spinning its wheels — cleverly, yes, but still spinning them — because its actual story is too slight for a feature film.
That said, there’s enough striking imagery (a lot of it achieved very simply, since the CGI budget was obviously small), atmosphere and sheer loopy creativity to recommend Night Watch to any film fan looking for something out of the ordinary. Indeed, the film is wildly inventive — almost too much so, which may be part of its overall problem. Even the subtitles are creative (and I have doubts about some of the translation, as when the owl who turns into a woman talks about a hot shower, yet clearly takes a bath).
There’s possibly an overabundance of “cool stuff” in this film that never gets properly explored. But hey, this seems a case where too much beats the owl feathers off too little. Rated R for strong violence, disturbing images and language. Note: Those interested in seeing Night Watch will want to hurry to the Fine Arts to catch it, because it leaves after Thursday, April 6.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke